Dr David Shiels is a Policy Analyst at Open Europe and also works on contemporary political history.
The outcome of the election in Northern Ireland was not good for the Conservative Party’s erstwhile confidence and supply partners, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The party lost two of its seats in Belfast and failed to gain another seat in North Down, where it had expected to win, leaving it with a total of eight seats (down from ten last time).
While it is difficult to compare this election to past elections because of various pacts and some smaller parties not standing, the DUP’s overall share of the vote fell by 5.4 per cent from 2017, though it is higher than the share in 2015. For the first time in the history of Northern Ireland, Unionists no longer have a majority of MPs at Westminster. Sinn Fein again have seven MPs, while the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) are back in Westminster with two MPs.
The Alliance Party’s victory in North Down – where the DUP expected to win – was a big moment of election night and follows the ‘Alliance surge’ seen in the local and European elections earlier this year. The party identifies as neither nationalist nor unionist but is strongly anti-Brexit. The Conservative Party only fielded candidates in four seats but its small vote recovered a bit since 2017 in those seats.
The results of the election have implications for Brexit and for the future of unionism and nationalism. Symbolically, the loss of their majority at Westminster was a blow for DUP. Overall, Northern Ireland now has a majority of anti-Brexit MPs which better reflects the majority but sets it further apart from England and Wales.
At this election the DUP had the worst of all worlds, taking the flak for its stance on Brexit and relationship with the Conservative Party while also having to campaign against Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. The party returns to Westminster a diminished force, without its kingmaker status and now coming to terms with the reality of a Brexit deal it does not like.
The greatest blow was the defeat of the party’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds in North Belfast following a particularly bitter campaign in the seat. The existence of an anti-DUP pact – dressed up as a Remainer pact – in the Belfast seats made the task difficult but the party did not really know how to appeal beyond its declining base. The response of party leader Arlene Foster – who said that ‘the demography was against us’ – has been criticised for its lack of self-reflection (and ignoring the fact that Unionists had a pact of their own in two seats). There are murmurings about her leadership.
The DUP also lost South Belfast to the SDLP and saw its majority drop to 1819 in East Belfast, its only remaining seat in the city. Elsewhere, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) was unable to reclaim the border seat of Fermanagh and South Tyrone from Sinn Fein despite the DUP standing aside and the potential appeal of an anti-abstention message.
Sinn Fein’s victory in North Belfast allows it to save face after a disappointing performance elsewhere. The republican party’s overall share of the vote fell by 6.7 per cent since 2017 and it lost the seat of Foyle to the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood. Here the SDLP’s strong anti-abstentionist message was clearly effective and suggests that the primary challenge to Sinn Fein abstention is coming from within nationalism itself, rather than from unionism. As the sole representative from a border seat to take his seat in the Commons, Eastwood will provide an important perspective to the debates on Brexit.
In a way the DUP MPs will probably be grateful for the SDLP and Alliance presence at Westminster since it means they will not take all the responsibility for a situation that is beyond their control.
Overall, the Alliance Party was vindicated for its decision to field candidates in every seat and not to participate in any pact. The party came third in terms in overall votes, up 8.8per cent since 2017, and it now has a presence in areas where it had not done so previously. Undoubtedly the party was helped by its strong anti-Brexit message but it was also the beneficiary of a dissatisfaction with the two main parties.
What happens next? While there is inevitable speculation about a border poll, this is not something that either London or Dublin will want to contemplate yet. Certainly the issue is less pressing than the SNP’s demand for an independence referendum in Scotland. The drop in support for Sinn Fein – the party which had been most vocal in calling for a border poll – was telling and suggests that even Nationalist voters are unenthusiastic about having one soon. The combined nationalist party vote share remained under 40 percent which would not be translated into a majority for Irish unity. Alliance have refused to endorse a poll and will not want to unsettle voters who have switched to them from the Unionist parties.
In the short term the election results may force the DUP and Sinn Fein to get serious about return to power-sharing. The London and Dublin Governments see a ‘significant opportunity’ to address the issue and are likely to put pressure on the parties to come to an agreement. January will mark three years since the collapse of the Stormont Executive and the Secretary of State, Julian Smith, has said he will call new Assembly elections if there is no agreement by January 13. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein might prefer to make the necessary compromises needed to return to an Executive and put off facing the electorate again until a later date.
As far as Brexit is concerned, there might be an incentive for the parties to return to Stormont to have an input into the work of the Specialised Committee tasked with overseeing the new Protocol on Northern Ireland. Based on current figures the Unionist parties are unlikely to win a majority in the Assembly to overturn the arrangements.
What of the future of Unionism? As I pointed out in my mini-series on the Union during the election campaign, the Unionist parties are still adjusting to the fact that they no longer speak for the majority in Northern Ireland.
There are those within the DUP and the UUP who believe that ‘Unionist unity’ is the way forward. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, likely to become the DUP’s Westminster leader after Dodds’ defeat, and a possible successor to Arlene Foster as overall leader, has said that voters were tired of ‘inter-Unionist squabbling’ and blamed the ‘splintering of Unionist votes’ for the Alliance victory in North Down. But it is not clear that greater cooperation between the Unionist parties or even a merger between the parties would be more successful.
Brexit is coming at a time when the political landscape in Northern Ireland is changing and it will take some time for the long-term implications to be revealed.