Change in Northern Ireland has been a long time coming – and it isn't done yet.
There’s so much to say about the election in the north of Ireland last week that it’s hard to know where to begin.
But we should probably start by talking about the fact that the Conservative party got 0.3%. Because, I mean, it’s kind of hilarious. The party of government, the party which claims to represent all of the unions represented by that solitary ‘U’ in UK, the party whose leader was, as the votes were counted, standing on a stage in Glasgow talking about how much she cares about her beloved United Kingdom – this party understands that union so little that it can’t even muster a measly third of a percentage point in one of its four nations.
We could talk about the fate of the SDLP, who effectively ended their long-term slump, aided by a young leader and the transfers from the Kamikaze Ulster Unionists. Oh, yes, and that means we need to talk a little first about the election system: Single Transferable Vote, where you rank candidates in order of preference, and once your preferred person is elected or knocked out, your vote, or the portion of it your woman didn’t need, is passed on to the next person on your list. That’s key.
But back to poor Mike Nesbitt. As leader of the more moderate of the Unionist parties, he had said that his second preference would be going to the centre-leftish nationalist SDLP, Labour’s sister. Many unionists didn’t take this anti-sectarian stand well, and the UUP suffered, perhaps partly as a result (though they are in long term decline). But it does seem that those who stuck with the struggling party were more likely to direct their second preferences across the traditional community fault line than they have been in the past. Whether this happened because of Nesbitt’s leadership, or because of a general disgust with the dominant unionist party, the scandal-ridden DUP, it was one of the things which drove the ultimate, remarkable result.
Then there are the smaller parties: the SWP front People Before Profit took a beating for their pro-Brexit stand. Leaving the EU is deeply unpopular in the Nationalist areas where they made their two break-throughs back in May. That, combined with the reduction of constituencies from six to five representatives each, cost the left party its seat in Derry and meant that they only just held on in West Belfast, alongside an astonishing four Sinn Fein reps. And there’s the Traditional Unionist Voice: the BNP to the DUP’s UKIP. Their one rep, the working-class-Loyalist-come-QC Jim Allister, kept his seat despite the less proportional system.
Steven Agnew, Northern Irish Green Party leader retained his place in North Down as did Green deputy leader and feminist activist Clare Bailey in South Belfast, who was first elected in May, and kept huge numbers of people up as we waited nervously for her eventual re-election as the final MLA in the small hours of Saturday morning, with the #awakeforbailey hashtag trending across the UK. Breaching both Green and Northern Irish stereotypes, the two politicians come from working class backgrounds on either side of the traditional divide, and their re-election became a focus for Greens across these islands, with delegations of canvassers arriving from Scotland the two weekends before the vote. It turns out it’s possible to believe in both independence and solidarity.
The Lib Dem’s sister party, Alliance, had a good night too, with their vote going up by 2.1% and maintaining eight seats, despite the overall reduction. Their leader, Naomi Long – who held East Belfast in Westminster for a five year period which included seeing her office bombed by Loyalists – provided a charismatic front for centrist voters wishing to reject sectarian history and DUP murk.
And we should pause a moment to note the failures, because they tell important stories too: alongside the Tories’ pathetic attempts to break into Northern Ireland since their bust-up with the Ulster Unionists after the 2010 election, there is UKIP, who won an Assembly Member from a defection just a few years back, but only got 0.2%. There is the Progressive Unionist Party; the only ever serious attempt at building a left wing party for working class Loyalists to vote for. It too once had Assembly members, but it lies in ruins and won only 0.7%. The attempts of its former leader and MLA Dawn Purvis to lure it away from the dark world of its paramilitary UVF roots seem to have failed, and the iconic feminist socialist is these days reputed to back the Greens’ Clare Bailey.
Likewise, we need to mention turnout, which rose by an extraordinary 9.8% since the May election: in part a Brexit bounce, in part, a tighter election than ever before, and in part, a clear sign that voter cynicism is evaporating.
All of these events are vital context. But the headline figures are the headlines for a reason. Sinn Fein did astonishingly well, and came within one seat of being the largest party. Their campaign, with posters calling for “equality now” and “respect for all: equal marriage now” as well as demanding an Irish language act to bring parity of linguistic esteem, seemed to take them back to the 1960s strategy of wrapping up Catholic oppression with other minority oppressions and attempting to build solidarity across them. Their new leader in the North, the 40 year old Michelle O’Neill, doesn’t bring with her the IRA baggage of her predecessors – and nor do many younger voters. The party’s famous network of organisers seem as energised and disciplined as ever, and they turned out their vote by the fistful.
The Democratic Unionist party, on the other hand, took a battering. Having dominated Northern Ireland since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the party retained its plurality by only one seat, and watched as a series of their most prominent politicians went the way of Douglas Alexander. In part, of course, this was the result of recent events: the trigger of the vote was the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, where half a billion or so of subsidies were pumped into a scheme through which those in the know could profit from burning wood-chips in barns and in chicken sheds and the like. At best this was gross incompetence which left a vast bill for a small place. And, worse, endless rumours about who was told how to profit from the scheme, and where the cash ended up, only played into a broad belief among many voters that the party of Ian Paisley has lost its moral compass since the reverend died.
It wasn’t just about so-called ‘cash for ash’ though. Brexit mobilised thousands of new voters to turn out (more, in fact, than the referendum itself). The series of articles that Peter Geoghegan and I wrote for openDemocracy about the secret donor who gave the party £425,000 to campaign for Brexit had, I like to think, some impact as journalists in Northern Ireland ably harried them on the provenance of the cash, and the party responded with the entertaining incompetence of a slapstick artist who trips and then trashes the room in an attempt not to fall over. First minister Arlene Foster’s embarrassing performances in the TV debates, which had higher audiences than their equivalents back in May, will have made many normally loyal Loyalists squirm, and perhaps encouraged a few to find alternative activities on voting day.
But there’s a longer term story too. When knocking on doors with the Northern Irish Greens in the working class Loyalist Cluan Place back in 2015, I got a distinct whiff I recognised from a decade earlier. It felt remarkably like canvassing in Labour voting council estates in Scotland’s central belt in the mid-noughties. Person after person would spend five minutes listing the failures of the Democratic Unionist party, describing their horror at their representative’s support for cuts to local services and failures to deliver for the area. When talking about the sectarian divisions, they would say things like ‘we need to move on from all of that’. But they’d conclude that they would have to vote DUP despite everything. It was their history, after all. As with Scottish Labour, such a position probably isn’t sustainable.
In part, therefore, the decline of the DUP is, like the decline of Scottish Labour, not only a product of its own failures, though in both cases there are plenty. Ultimately, the parties both find themselves tied by their unionism to a British state which has had little economic strategy since the loss of its empire, beyond high finance and endless rounds of asset-stripping privatisation. Where Sinn Fein, like the SNP, have had to accept cuts to the block grant from Westminster, their voters see them as standing up against that austerity, as implementing it under protest. The DUP, on the other hand, are bound into ideological support for a British state which is hammering their working class base. And that’s a very difficult position to maintain for long – particularly if you combine it with conservative social values which only win majorities among those demographics that are gradually dying off, and support for a Brexit nationalism destined to do disastrous damage to the place over which you govern.
Likewise, that same austerity is fraying the fabric of support for the Union more specifically. I also spent a day wandering round Belfast in the weeks before Scotland’s referendum in 2014, talking to people about the question at hand. Though I asked about Scotland, they always answered for Ireland. And what numerous people there told me (and this is borne out in the polls) was that, though they came from a Catholic background and would see themselves as nationalists, they would in fact vote to remain in the UK were there a border poll the next day. Leaving the UK for Ireland would mean leaving the NHS, and social security, and the greater subsidies which the larger (if poorer per capita) UK can manage more easily than Ireland could. As Britain’s health service frays, job seekers find themselves sanctioned, and voters are forced to choose between EU subsidies and Westminster’s dwindling pocket-money, those sums seem likely to start to shift. Throw the prospect of a hard border – meaning border posts, meaning bomb targets, meaning a return of British soldiers to protect them, meaning who-knows-what, and the pragmatic case for unionism wilts some more. And once that goes, the beating drum of demographic pressure becomes audible once more: the 2011 census showed Catholics had almost reached parity with Protestants for the first time since partition.
“I live in a Protestant area, my children go to a Catholic school, and I am black … I want a party which represents the whole community, not one part of it”. . . “We voted Remain. She doesn’t listen to the will of the people here. She only listens to the will of the people in England.”
Though of course, it’s not just about religious affiliation, and not everyone ticks those boxes anyway. A man I met on Belfast’s Falls Road a week and a half before the recent vote came from that majority of people in Northern Ireland: those who are neither dedicated Loyalists of Republicans. “I live in a Protestant area, my children go to a Catholic school, and I am black” he said. “I want a party which represents the whole community, not one part of it”. For him, in this election, that was Sinn Fein. And most of all, he was livid with Theresa May. “We voted Remain. She doesn’t listen to the will of the people here. She only listens to the will of the people in England.” Everyone can see, he told me, that “the UK is dead”, he was sad, but emphatic, “Scotland will leave in a couple of years.” And with a clear choice, as he saw it, between a dying UK and the EU through Ireland, there was only one option. Despite no background in Republican politics, he was desperate for a border poll, and newly convinced of the case for a United Ireland.
Not everyone has made that journey yet, and it’ll take time. But it does feel, for now at least, like the direction of travel.
Whatever the causes of Thursday’s dramatic shift, the overall result was extraordinary. The borders of Northern Ireland were carved with a scalpel through the island to ensure a permanent Protestant and unionist majority. But in the new assembly, for the first time ever, that majority is gone: the maths is a perfect balance: 40 unionists, 40 nationalists, and 10 cross-community Members of the Legislative Assembly.
What this means beyond constitutional politics is key: the hard right DUP and TUV together don’t have the 30 seats they need in order to use the strange ‘petition of concern’ mechanism that was built into the Good Friday Agreement to prevent the minority rights of either sectarian side from being abused, but has in fact been used by the DUP to repeatedly block rights for other minorities, most famously equal marriage. While there is some suggestion that an Ulster Unionist or two may break ranks on that issue to block the majority who support the equalisation of marriage rights, there is a fighting chance that they won’t. Similarly, whilst progress on the matter is far from guaranteed (regressive politics isn’t the preserve of one party), the end of the DUP’s automatic block may allow for some space to discuss changes to the current anti-abortion laws which the pro-forced pregnancy party has always blocked.
Then, of course, there is the question of what next. The Good Friday Agreement, on which the power-sharing Assembly is built, requires that the biggest nationalist and the biggest unionist party to each nominate someone for first and deputy first minister in order for a government to be formed. Sinn Fein have repeatedly said that they will refuse to go into government with DUP leader Arlene Foster until she has been properly investigated for her role in the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. And the DUP can’t be seen to give in to a Sinn Fein demand to replace their leader, no matter how dreadful she is. If the deadlock continues, then there will either be another election, or direct rule from Westminster – possibly in what’s called a condominium arrangement with Dublin. At the same time, the same Sinn Fein are working to topple a precarious government in the Republic, which embroiled in another scandal. Are they playing a clever and co-ordinated game of some kind? If so, it seems to be going well so far.
And finally, let’s touch on the man who tipped the first domino. When Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, it was in part because of his unwillingness to work with the DUP’s scandal-ridden leader as allegations of malpractice circulated. But it was also because he has a serious illness. And his health is said to be rapidly deteriorating. McGuinness is from that generation of politicians in Northern Ireland who led their respective sides to lay down arms, make peace, and bring a relative calm to the last two decades in a troubled land. It’s looking increasingly like his final political move was signing not just a couple of resignation letters, but the birth certificate of another new era for Northern Ireland.
This piece was commissioned by and first appeared on Bella Caledonia