Dr David Shiels is a contemporary historian and College Research Associate at Wolfson College, Cambridge.
The consensus at Westminster is that David Cameron’s second term will be dominated by two major issues, the UK’s relationship with Europe and the future of the Union itself. The triumph of the SNP means that much of the focus has been on Scotland’s contribution to these debates, while the concerns of the Northern Ireland parties have received relatively little attention.
This was a good election for the Unionist parties, particularly the UUP which returned to Parliament with two seats after an absence of five years. The defeat of Sinn Fein in Fermanagh & South Tyrone, where there was a ‘unionist unity’ pact was an example of the benefits of co-operation between the Unionist parties at a local level. Meanwhile the success of the UUP’s Danny Kinahan at the expense of the DUP in South Antrim shows that moderate Unionism will have a voice in the House of Commons. The UUP’s success this time around suggests that the party has recovered from its 2010 pact with the Conservative party, while the rebranded NI Conservatives did not make any progress in the election. The DUP maintained its position as the largest party in Northern Ireland, but it will struggle to make its voice heard in the new Parliament.
From the Conservative point of view, Mr Cameron will be relieved that he does not have to do a formal deal with the DUP, a party that in Britain is perceived to be ‘more right wing than UKIP’. But he may yet come to rely on the Unionists, so the Prime Minister should reach out nonetheless.
The most important issue for the DUP and the UUP is the future of the Union itself. They are anxious about the rise of the SNP and the implications of any move towards a federal United Kingdom. For these reasons, Unionists would have found it very hard to support a Labour-SNP alternative had Mr Cameron fallen short of a majority. Yet the DUP in particular remains wary of the Conservative Party and has concerns about aspects of the party’s approach to the Union. A rushed response to the SNP’s triumph in Scotland could have unintended consequences for Northern Ireland. Unionist MPs are unlikely to support ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (EVEL) unless they were offered reassurances about their own role at Westminster. While English Conservatives worry about the West Lothian Question, Ulster Unionists are concerned about what might be called the ‘West Tyrone Question’. This is just one of the four seats held by Sinn Fein, which, as a result of the party’s abstentionism, is not represented in the House of Commons at all. The Unionist attack on the Sinn Fein position – which featured heavily in the recent election campaign – would be undermined if Ulster MPs are excluded from the House of Commons under an EVEL settlement.
On the question of Europe, Unionists will need reassurance that the Government’s renegotiation will be conducted with some regard to the circumstances in Northern Ireland. The DUP and the UUP are traditionally Eurosceptic parties, and individual MPs may well campaign for withdrawal from the EU during the referendum campaign. But the Nationalist parties, along with Alliance and indeed many Unionists, would campaign to remain in the EU. Their concern is that ‘Brexit’ would have severe implications for the Northern Ireland agricultural economy as well as cross-border relations in Ireland, a concern shared by the Irish Government. Whatever the outcome, an EU referendum could risk a border poll in Northern Ireland as well as a second independence referendum in Scotland, both of which would be deeply unwelcome to Unionists. The British Government must therefore take account of the ‘Irish dimension’ to the European question and should promise continuity in UK-Ireland relations regardless of what happens in Europe.
As leader of the Conservative party, David Cameron has shown commitment to the Union with Northern Ireland as well as the Union with Scotland. Before 2010, he said that he wanted to see politicians from the province play a role at the heart of the Government of the United Kingdom. By consulting Northern Ireland’s parties about the constitutional debates ahead, the Prime Minister would do a service to his party as well as the Union itself.