NI Unionism: bulwark of the Union breaking down? by Helen Ramscar

This month’s election result timestamps an awakened Fifth Kingdom in England, a resurgent SNP in Scotland, and yet, perhaps the most strange and important underlying shift lay elsewhere, as traditional identity politics in Northern Ireland appeared to go into retreat. This may turn out to be the real ticking time-bomb under the union of the UK.

Sinn Féin and the DUP both suffered huge losses. As table 1 shows, in every constituency retained by either of the two largest parties their majorities dropped considerably.

Sinn Féin held onto its seven Westminster seats even though it refuses to take them – a policy of absenteeism that the SDLP challenged in the Foyle constituency and Sinn Féin lost the seat as well as 46% of its 2017 vote. Even in Gerry Adams’ stronghold of West Belfast where historically Sinn Féin had maintained over 70% of the vote, support for the party has dropped to 53.8%. In fact, Sinn Féin lost out across the province, dropping its overall vote by 6.7%. As a comparison, the Labour Party’s national performance was regarded as disastrous, where it lost 8% of its previous support.

The DUP did not have a better night. In a matter of months, it went from riding high as Westminster’s kingmaker in Brexit negotiations to a bruising defeat at home, with the leader of its parliamentary party, Nigel Dodds, losing his North Belfast seat that had been in unionist hands since before partition. Two Belfast seats down and dropping its overall vote by 5.4%, practically irrelevant in Westminster now the Johnson-led Conservative majority of 80 can bin the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, and being blamed for the collapse of cross-party attempts to resurrect Stormont before Christmas, the bulwark of the Union is in trouble.

Indeed, as Northern Ireland approaches its centenary in 2021, NI unionism has reached a tipping point. For the first time, Northern Ireland unionism no longer has a majority either in Stormont or in Westminster. The public inquiry into the Renewable Heating Initiative (RHI or ‘Cash for Ash’ scheme) is due to publish its report sometime in 2020. The RHI was set up in 2012 and managed by the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), whose Minister at the time was Arlene Foster. The report next year may well be damning against DUP officials involved in setting up, operating and potentially delaying the closure of the scheme – thereby allowing a late spike in applications and public funds paid out to those in the know.

The tribal lines along which Northern Ireland’s politics have operated for so long appear to be changing. For in this election the voice of ‘neither’ unionist nor nationalist was heard. The centrist Alliance party almost doubled its share of the vote – to 16.8% – becoming the third largest party, bumping the SDLP and the UUP out of the way.

With Stormont decision-making powers suspended since January 2017 over the DUP and Sinn Fein’s mutual intransigence, and Westminster so consumed by Brexit that national decision-making has gone into abeyance while the Brexit imbroglio plays out, it should be no surprise that the Northern Ireland electorate (which voted 55% to Remain) reacted against more of the same.

The electoral equation may be reaching something of a tipping point. Perhaps the ideological and constitutional drum-beating – so long the sound of local politics – will give way in the 2020s to more of the ‘neither’ voters who came out in this election. This may well be a pragmatic and advantageous development for Northern Ireland’s future on the home front.

But if the bulwark of the Union is in decline, while secessionist Scotland is shouting louder and the Fifth Kingdom has emerged from hiding, where exactly is the backbone holding the United Kingdom together?

Table 1

Constituency2017 Elected Party2017 votes for Elected Party2019 Elected Party2019 votes for Elected Party2017 to 2019 change
Belfast EastDUP23,917DUP20,874DUP -13%
Belfast NorthDUP21,240Sinn Féin23,078DUP -1 seat; SF +1 seat
Belfast SouthDUP13,299SDLP27,079DUP -1 seat; SDLP +1 seat
Belfast WestSinn Féin27,107Sinn Féin20,866SF -23%
East AntrimDUP21,873DUP16,871DUP -23%
East LondonderryDUP19,723DUP15,765DUP -20%
Fermanagh & South TyroneSinn Féin25,230Sinn Féin21,986SF -13%
FoyleSinn Féin18,256SDLP26,881SF -1 seat; SDLP +1 seat
Lagan ValleyDUP26,762DUP19,586DUP -27%
Mid UlsterSinn Féin25,455Sinn Féin20,473SF -20%
Newry & ArmaghSinn Féin25,666Sinn Féin20,287SF -21%
North AntrimDUP28,521DUP20,860DUP -27%
North DownIndependent16,148Alliance18,358Alliance +1 seat
South AntrimDUP16,508DUP15,149DUP -8%
South DownSinn Féin20,328Sinn Féin16,137SF -21%
StrangfordDUP24,036DUP17,705DUP -26%
Upper BannDUP22,317DUP20,501DUP -8%
West TyroneSinn Féin22,060Sinn Féin16,544SF -25%
 2017 Total: 10 DUP; 7 Sinn Féin; 1 Independent 2019 Total: 8 DUP; 7 Sinn Féin; 2 SDLP; 1 Alliance 

Source: The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland