Change in Northern Ireland

One of the potentially most significant outcomes of the 2019 General Election, but one barely mentioned in the English media, was what happened in Northern Ireland. For the first time ever, a majority of the MPs elected in the six counties were nationalist. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) gained two seats to add to the seven of Sinn Féin (including a significant gain in Belfast North) while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lost two to finish with eight. The remaining seat went to the Alliance, originally a moderate unionist party but now basically a liberal centrist (and anti-Brexit) party.

Here’s how the electoral map of Northern Ireland changed:

Sinn Féin seats are dark green, DUP orange, SDLP light green and Alliance yellow.

In terms of the popular vote, the DUP+UUP got 42.3% whereas SDLP+ Sinn Féin got 37.7. Both SF and DUP lost vote share compared to 2017 (by 6.7% and 5.4% respectively) at the expense of the Alliance (up 8.8%) and SDLP (up 3.1%).

Incremental differences, perhaps, but significant nonetheless – especially as Brexit hasn’t yet happened. After Brexit there will be a border in the Irish Sea, which will bring the end of partition one step closer. The probability of seeing a United Ireland in my lifetime has definitely increased.

It was no surprise to see the hashtag `#UnityPlan’ trending on Twitter immediately after the election. Irish unification will only happen if there is a public vote and a majority on both sides of the border agree. For that vote to be fair it is vital that there is a definite plan on how to proceed in the event that the vote is in favour, so the public know what they are voting for. The Irish should not make the mistake that Britain did over Brexit.

For many unionists religion was the primary reason for wanting to remain in the United Kingdom at the time of partition in 1921: Protestants felt that their identity would be threatened if they were made to join the Catholic South. Maybe they were right to feel nervous, as the original constitution of the Irish Free State enshrined “the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church”.  But the section including that phrase was deltd from the Constitution way back in 1973 and the Roman Church has far less influence in the Republic than it did. Ireland is now an open and progressive country, so I hope those fears have receded.

Just to confuse matters even further I should mention that my Grandfather, the one born in Belfast, to whom I owe my Irish citizenship,  was a protestant republican…

Those in the North who wish to keep their British passports should be able to do so in a United Ireland, just as those of us who were born in Britain but now live in Ireland can keep ours. I’ll be keeping mine, at least until it expires…

P.S. It is worth mentioning (primarily for British friends) that there are three counties in Ireland that belong to the province of Ulster but are not part of Northern Ireland as it was formed after partition: these are Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal. The northernmost point of Donegal, Malin Head, is actually the northernmost point on the island of Ireland.

4 Responses to “Change in Northern Ireland”

  1. Majority of MPs are nationalist, but unionist votes were higher – I think by around 41,000, excluding Alliance.

    Alliance voters ** historically ** would be mostly unionist, but that could change depending on (a) performance of NI financially post-Brexit, (b) perception of RoI being more liberal than NI, which would likely be attractive to younger voters in particular.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, DUP+UUP together got 42.3% of the vote whereas SF+SDLP got 37.7. Alliance were on 16.8.

      Corresponding figures in 2017 were DUP+UUP=46.3%, SF+SDLP=41.1%. Both DUP and SF thus lost vote share, SF did not stand in three seats, for tactical reasons, including the one won by the Alliance.

      It is true that what happens in future depends on where Alliance voters stand on unification, but there are signs that the more pragmatic centrist parties have gained ground in this election in terms of vote share.

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    ”Irish unification will only happen if there is a public vote and a majority on both sides of the border agree.”

    I realize that things are difficult without a written constitution, but it seems that the legal opinion is clear that, in the case of Scotland, the UK government has to agree as well. Is that different for Ireland? What about Wales?

    • telescoper Says:

      As part of the Good Friday Agreement, an explicit provision for holding a Northern Ireland border poll was made in UK law.
      The Northern Ireland Act 1998 states that “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”, the Secretary of State shall make an Order in Council enabling a border poll.

      On the other hand we know what Boris Johnson thinks about the law.

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