The Assembly elections a month ago saw Sinn Fein become the largest party and entitled to nominate the First Minister of Northern Ireland. The election was heralded as historic with an Irish nationalist taking the post for the first time. Nationalists celebrated, although without much celebration, pointing to the irony of the ‘Protestant state for a Protestant people’ being headed by a (Catholic) nationalist. Whether this was doubly ironic was not considered – what is the imperative to dismantle the Northern state if it is no longer able to guarantee its original purpose of sectarian supremacy?
Very symbolic, everyone agreed. But beyond this obvious reversal, symbolic of what?
Perhaps the heralding of border polls North and South that would deliver a united Ireland?
This blog has argued that such unity is some way off and there does not yet exist a majority for a united Ireland in the North. Sinn Fein’s victory confirms this.
Despite declaring the election ‘historic’, turnout was slightly down from 64.78% in 2017 to 63.61% last month. Sinn Fein appears to have cannibalised the nationalist vote rather than extended it, as its share increased by 1% and that of the nationalist SDLP fell by 2.9%. As a share of the total vote the nationalist total amounted to 40.93% (353,069 votes), when including votes for People before Profit and the Irish Republican Socialist Party, (on the grounds that their position on the national question involves support for a united Ireland).
A point made here before however is that the national question will not be confined to purely national questions whenever it comes to be posed as a realistic possibility. The ‘conversation’ campaigned for by Sinn Fein about such possibility does not make it probable.
The combined vote of unionist parties was only just under 4,000 less than the nationalist total at 40.47%. Its composition changed however, as some DUP voters found something even more reactionary to vote for – the Traditional Unionist Voice vote increased from 2.55% to 7.63%, increasing more than three times absolutely. Sinn Fein became the largest Party only because of Unionist division. Its prominence is therefore symbolic of what caused this division and weakening of unionism.
Since it might reasonably be expected that voting in a border poll will entail different considerations and additional incentives to participation it is necessary to consider what the election results imply for the outcome of a border poll. If we consider the Sinn Fein result not just in terms of those who voted (29%) but as a share of the electorate as a whole (18.5%) we can see the scope of the potential impact of any increased turnout.
It is assumed that the 2021 census results that will come out relatively soon will record an increase in the Catholic share of the population and decrease in the Protestant. The last Census in 2011 found 45.1% of the Northern Ireland population were Catholic, with 48.4% from a Protestant background. More importantly, religious background does not map directly onto political allegiance – the 2021 Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) survey reported that 32% of respondents identified as unionist, 26% as nationalist and 38% as other. An examination of support for the Alliance Party illustrates the complexity.
It was held up as the real winner of the election, heralding not the victory of Irish nationalism but of ‘the centre ground’ in which the ‘constitutional question’ is not primary. The party’s vote increased to 13.53% (116,681 votes) from 9.05% (72,717 votes), or an absolute increase in votes of 60%.
The Party originates as a straightforward Unionist Party with a clear position on the border but has moved away from presenting as a non-sectarian unionist party to a party variously described as neither unionist nor nationalist, as ‘other’, agnostic on the border or simply seeking to relegate it to the future. Beyond this, the Alliance Party has never shown that it is any real opposition to most of the reactionary policies pursued by either Irish nationalism or Irish unionism.
The weakness of this is obvious. The national question is not one that can forever be avoided and the context and terms in which it is presented will go a long way in determining responses. It will not simply be a question of recording existing opinions but a political struggle to change them, which will be heavily impacted by economic and social developments that will be driven by outside forces, as we have already seen through Brexit.
Most people already have a view, even Alliance voters. The NILT survey is reported as showing that over half of all Alliance voters supported membership of the UK while only 35% of it from a Catholic background supported a united Ireland. When we consider that some (minority) of nationalists, in the SDLP for example, may not vote for a united Ireland and that the majority of those who do not vote will be from a Protestant background, the odds on a vote for a united Ireland are fairly long, as is the timescale in which it might become otherwise.
What has heightened speculation has been Brexit and the economic and political effects of unionist support for it, including through some unionists finding themselves voting against it. While the DUP strongly supported it, and the hardest version of it they could get, the Ulster Unionist Party opposed Brexit, although it left it to its members whether they could support it or not.
The reverberations from the inconsistency between the anti-Brexit view of a minority of unionist voters and its most prominent leaders is not something that is going to go away. Brexit is not a one-off move, as many of its supporters believe. Far from being the achievement of ‘freedom’ it involves increasing separation from Europe with all the negative consequences that it will continue to bring, for as long as it is implemented as it is currently. What is really symbolic in the circumstances is the large number of unionists getting Irish (EU) passports (even some who voted for Brexit).
Trade between North and South has increased dramatically while trade between the Irish State and Britain has reduced as some of this is re-routed from the direct crossing via Dublin port to Northern Ireland and then into the Irish State. This in itself matters because the Irish State is no longer significantly underdeveloped compared to Britain. It is no longer clearly the case that people in the North would be significantly worse off if they lived in a united Ireland, on top of which the sectarian aspects of the Irish State have diminished, although far from disappeared. What were once absolutes have been, and are still, in transition. It is the North that now looks backward and parochial to increasing numbers of people across the island.
What is of more immediate importance is that despite claims to having got Brexit done, the Tory Government has demonstrated that it hasn’t got anywhere near it. This is most obvious with the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol but is also shown through more delays to the introduction of controls on EU goods imported into Britain; plus the failure to gear up its own regulatory bodies to perform the functions previously carried out at EU level, and continued complaints of exclusion from European initiatives such as the Horizon scientific research programme.
The DUP is now refusing to join the Executive of the devolved administration and to allow the newly elected Assembly to operate. It claims that the Protocol has impacted on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as part of the UK, even though Jeffrey Donaldson has previously specifically dismissed such a claim, and the Party’s previous leader attempted to argue its positive impact on the local economy.
The DUP’s problem is not that Brexit has failed but that it has succeeded in demonstrating that it was a mistake. The Protocol that was necessitated by the hardest Brexit the DUP could support is held up as being to blame for weakening political links to Britain. It dishonestly claims that it fundamentally impairs Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as part of the UK while nationalists equally dishonestly claim it has no significance at all.
While the DUP opposes the Protocol and nationalists support it both want it changed, and both want to pretend and ensure that Brexit can and will have little or no impact on trade. While both claimed before the vote that Brexit would have big consequences they now want to pretend it can have next to none. It is claimed that the frictions and additional costs to trade can be more or less ameliorated and risks to the integrity of the EU’s Single Market minimised if not ignored.
All are in reality, or so it is claimed, united on a ‘landing zone’ for a deal in which goods from Britain destined for the Northern Ireland market go through a radically different procedure than those being forwarded to the Irish State. In this the business lobby is widely quoted as the experts without any particular agenda.
Already the EU has signaled that there can be dramatic reductions in checks but that this requires access to information, data flows and means of assurance that the British have so far refused to give, contrary to the Protocol they agreed and signed. Despite claims to the contrary the risk to the Single Market is not zero, and the British Foreign Secretary has already boasted of the future ability of Britain to import into Northern Ireland agricultural products from the rest of the world that would not be allowed into the European market. This is not to mention other British objections around state aid and governance etc. that the EU will not accept.
The DUP hitched itself to Boris Johnson’s Brexit and was betrayed through his agreement to the Protocol, an agreement the Brexit Tories had no intention of keeping. For the Tories, the Protocol gives them the advantage of continuing to rally their support around a Brexit struggle they claimed to have already won, while offering some hope that they can leverage any EU concessions into the wider Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
For the DUP, reversal of previous claims that the Protocol is no threat and had positive economic impacts, provides an avenue for them to regroup from their mistakes and attempt to regain their position as the biggest party and therefore entitlement to the post of First Minister. It was their idea to change the rules so that the largest party could claim this post, which had previously enabled it to demand support from unionists in order to prevent Sinn Fein capturing it. If they can get sufficient concessions on the Protocol it can wait for another election, claim the credit and then get back to displacing Sinn Fein as the biggest party.
This requires reliance on the Johnson Government continuing to dispute with the EU but also ultimately coming to an agreement. Despite a continuation of the dispute being a reminder that Johnson did not ‘get Brexit done’ it is the only route he has to protecting his position inside the Conservative Party and providing some sort of cover for Brexit’s negative consequences. The introduction of the legislative route to overturning the Protocol builds some delay to actually having to break from it or swallow defeat. This is obviously not sustainable in the longer term and is less and less convincing in distracting from Brexit’s failures. In these circumstances The EU has little reason to accept British demands.
The DUP will find it difficult to retreat while Johnson pretends he can face down the EU, and Johnson has become such a liability his policy of asking the punters why he did Brexit in the first place, and sticking a crown on pint glasses, will not cover for his mess.
The victory of Sinn Fein might be symbolic, but it arises within circumstances more important than such symbolism. It might herald a position in government office North and South of the border but the border will still be there and, as usual with its successes, it will illustrate that what is good for it has only remote connection to what is good for the Irish working class.