Sinn Fein's leader in the North, Michelle O'Neill. Image, Yountube, fair use.
When my friend Rob arrived at university, he discovered one of his flatmates was a passionate Northern Irish unionist. Rob, a Jewish socialist from London, was rather surprised by his new pal’s dedication to a Britain which has never returned the favour. And he vowed that, by the end of the week, he would have converted the poor fellow to the cause of a united Ireland.
Over the following days, Rob and his new friend did what freshers are known for: they toured the pubs and cafes of their newfound home and met hundreds of other recent arrivals, most of whom they would never speak to again. But each time they introduced themselves, Rob did something perhaps a little cruel. He asked this new acquaintance, in front of his Loyalist flatmate, what they knew about Northern Ireland. He interrogated them about which country it was in: the UK or Ireland. And he inquired whether or not they cared.
If Rob is to be believed, his strategy just about worked. After a week of being told by his baffled British peers that they really didn't know or give much of a damn about the constitutional arrangements of the north eastern corner of the island of Ireland, his friend's previous Loyalism was beginning to crumble. It's hard to insist on your Britishness when most British people see you as Irish. Nothing makes you feel like more of a fool than unrequited love.
I'm reminded of this story because yesterday, there was an election in Northern Ireland. For voters there, it was clearly an important affair. While the ballots haven’t yet been counted, reports from polling station after polling station indicate clearly that turnout is up significantly on the vote last year.
Before this fact emerged, the result was already somewhat uncertain. While those in the know seem to agree that the most likely outcome is that the Democratic Unionist Party are returned as the largest party but with a reduced mandate, the bookies and the polls agreed that a Sinn Fein upset is far from impossible. The last survey before polling day had Michelle O’Neill’s nationalist party just a single point behind their Unionist rivals-come-coalition partners.
Now we know that many more people have shown up than last time, the likely outcome seems even less predictable: who are all of these extra voters? Is the increased interest uniform, or is one particular part of the electorate particularly energised? Some speculation is possible; with turnout particularly high in some rural majority-Catholic areas which traditionally vote for Sinn Fein, and in parts of Belfast which have backed cross-community parties like Alliance and the Greens. But no one can really be sure until the results start to tally up. Similarly, polls seemed to indicate that smaller parties might benefit from anger with the two governing parties, and the conversations I had in my weekend there a fortnight ago, though not representing a meaningful sample size, certainly indicated as much. But did that enthusiasm hold until election day? Or did it get crushed in a good old-fashioned two-party-squeeze? We don’t know.
What we do know is that the issues at play in this vote matter profoundly. Here on openDemocracy, we’ve been tugging at one thread in particular: the lack of transparency around Northern Irish political donations, and how it was exploited in the EU referendum. This, of course, ties into the the lack of transparency in the half-billion Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, and a broader sense that politics there needs a spring clean.
And alongside the need for transparency are a series of crucial issues: Northern Ireland is among the poorest patches of the UK. It is the only part in which abortion is banned and so forced pregnancy is written in statute. It is the one place in these islands where same-sex couples can’t get married. It has had sectarian rioting in the last few years, and is still divided by a labyrinth of walls, keeping the different communities from both killing and meeting each other. It is the only bit of the UK with a land border; and it probably faces more serious consequences from Brexit than anywhere else. The result of this election, the position that the new first minister takes on this key constitutional question – and, relatedly, that other constitutional question, could shape the direction of travel for the years to come. It's not impossible that this turns out to be for Northern Ireland what the 2007 vote which saw the SNP narrowly returned for the first time was for Scotland.
And the result of the election will have a profound impact on all of these questions. If the DUP get fewer than 30 seats, they won’t be able on their own to use ‘petition of concern’ rules to block anything they don’t like, as they have done in recent years. And if Sinn Fein do come first and have a chance to lead the government, the impact on the rest of the UK could be profound: if soft English nationalists don’t like the SNP, wait till they wake up to a Sinn Fein first minister.
And if that does happen; which is probably not the most likely outcome, but is certainly possible, then it will be even more of a shock for those outside Northern Ireland, because the British press has done almost nothing to inform its public about what on earth is going on. For most people in Britain, just like the poor students my friend grilled in his freshers’ week, Northern Ireland is a long, long way away. It is as distant as, well, the Republic of Ireland. And while it’s easy to attack the London media for its role in perpetuating this, perhaps that’s the wrong approach. Perhaps the most important thing we have learnt from this election is that people in Great Britain really don’t feel like they live in the same political unit as Northern Ireland. And perhaps, as Rob worked to convince his friend, that’s the simplest evidence that it’s time to end the British/Irish union.