Dr David Shiels is a contemporary historian and College Research Associate at Wolfson College, Cambridge.
The outcome of the Northern Ireland Assembly Election does not, as some commentators have suggested, mean that a border poll is imminent or that Ulster will lead Scotland out of the United Kingdom.
Despite Gerry Adams’s comment that this was a ‘watershed election’ for Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionists remain (just about) the largest party in the Assembly.
Only in the case of the Nationalists securing a decisive lead in the elections would the Secretary of State be convinced that a border poll is necessary, namely if: ‘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.’
Although Brexit was undoubtedly a factor in motivating Nationalists to vote for Sinn Fein and the SDLP, what the outcome of the Assembly election actually shows is that Northern Ireland politics is conforming to type. Any simple comparison with the situation in Scotland is misleading, and the election tells us very little about what Brexit means for the Union in the longer-term.
As Malachi O’Doherty has pointed out, the ‘old conflict is alive and well’, and neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein has anything to gain in setting aside old differences. The system is working as the critics predicted it would, and there is little prospect that the smaller, centre-ground parties will be able to challenge the dominance of big two.
TheeElection results also appear to confirm old Unionist fears – and Nationalist expectations – that long-term demographic trends favour Irish unity. The idea that there is a Catholic Unionist vote that would uphold the Union (whether by abstaining in a border poll or actively voting to stay in the UK) has been severely under-estimated, but that is not to say that it does not exist.
Here the election shows that any attempt by Unionists to play the Orange card will motivate the nationalist vote, so preparations for a future border poll need to be handled very carefully.
To this end, the outcome of the EU referendum has been unhelpful to Unionists, in the sense that it provides an opportunity for Sinn Fein to re-educate their supporters about the border while questioning the legitimacy of ‘Tory Brexit’ in Ireland (this is similar to the party’s strategy of opposing ‘Tory cuts’ in the 2015 Westminster Election).
Here Sinn Fein are mimicking the strategy of the SNP, but in the context of Brexit Irish Nationalists have time on their side whereas the SNP do not. There is, in fact, a tension between Scottish Nationalism and Irish Nationalism, since what is good for one is not necessarily good for the other, although if the Republic of Ireland does particularly badly out of Brexit it could serve as a warning against both Irish unity and Scottish Independence.
The realities of demography mean that Irish Nationalists believe their time will come, whereas the unpopularity of a second referendum in Scotland suggest that the SNP’s time might have passed.
As far as Northern Ireland’s Unionists are concerned, this election has indeed been a turning point. The loss of the overall Unionist majority in the Assembly has been described as ‘nothing short of a disaster for Unionism’. It has certainly been a psychological blow for Unionists to discover that they are no longer the ‘majority community’ – although this fact was already confirmed in the most recent census results which showed that Protestants now make up less than 50 per cent of the population.
In party political terms, the DUP may take a few small crumbs of comfort from the fact that their share of the vote held up in difficult circumstances, albeit that the doomsday scenario that their campaign was supposed to prevent – Sinn Fein emerging as the largest party – almost came true.
Liberal opinion in Northern Ireland and elsewhere has it that the DUP made a huge error in supporting Brexit since that is against the interests of Northern Ireland, but there was at least something to be said for rallying Unionists behind the Brexit mission. Brexit would be happening with or without DUP support, and if the Union is to survive, supporters must learn to make the case for it outside the EU.
The election was also disappointing for the Ulster Unionist Party, whose leader, Mike Nesbitt, had hoped that the break-down in power-sharing could help to reshape politics in Northern Ireland. Although his party increased its share of the vote, it suffered particularly badly from the overall reduction in the number of seats in the Assembly.
Much has been made of Nesbitt’s attempt to forge a partnership with the SDLP in Opposition – the DUP said that his offer of a second preference to the SDLP cost Unionists seats in the Assembly – but his real problem was that he was unable to attract the support of moderate voters while clinging onto the traditional party identity.
There is still a need for the UUP as an outlet for Unionists who are unhappy with the DUP, but parties such as the Alliance and Greens are better placed, it seems, to capture the votes of people who are disillusioned with the tribal politics of the Assembly.
In the medium to longer term, Unionists must come to terms not only with the reality of a growing Nationalist vote but also with the growing number of voters who are reluctant to describe themselves as ‘Unionist’. Much will be made of the need for ‘Unionist unity’ in response to this election, but Unionists must learn to engage with an increasingly diverse society in Northern Ireland while making the case for the United Kingdom.