What’s at Stake for Northern Ireland in the U.K. Elections?

Changing Demographics and Post-Brexit Tensions Could Mean a Reconciled and Reunified Ireland

What’s at Stake for Northern Ireland in the U.K. Elections? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

How will the U.K. general elections affect Northern Ireland? For our latest “Election Letter,” journalist Amanda Ferguson writes from Belfast. Image of Parliament Buildings in the Stormont Estate in Belfast; courtesy of AP Photo/Peter Morrison

Working in media I walk a tightrope every day trying to adequately reflect the nuance of life and political perspectives on the island of Ireland, in particular Northern Ireland.

Come election season, how people here choose to vote is never about just one issue. But, as always, the question of whether Northern Ireland should reunify with the Republic of Ireland is a consideration on many people’s minds—even though it isn’t on the ballot.

Northern Ireland is currently part of the United Kingdom. Along with voters in England, Scotland, and Wales, the electorate here will head to the polls tomorrow, July 4, to select members of the Westminster Parliament in London.

Northern Ireland is very small, with a population of less than 2 million people. It holds just 18 of the 650 seats in the British parliament so influence can be challenging. Northern Ireland’s devolved legislature, known as Stormont, has limited powers, as do local council bodies.

The Westminster election has been a lackluster campaign but will likely throw up some surprising and significant results. What it means for Northern Ireland depends entirely on whom you ask—nationalists, who want reunification with the Republic of Ireland; unionists, who want to remain part of the U.K.; or others with varied views on the future.

There are hundreds of years of complicated history and identity issues in the mix. Many people consider the island of Ireland to have been Britain’s first colony: the whole thing was once part of the U.K. But in the early 20th century, 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties formed a new republic, leaving the six counties in the north still part of the U.K. This new region of Northern Ireland, essentially gerrymandered into existence, was rife with inequality and structured to ensure unionist electoral dominance in perpetuity.

From the 1960s to the late 1990s violence between British loyalist and Irish republican paramilitaries, and the U.K. state, left over 3,500 people dead and tens of thousands injured. People in Northern Ireland still feel the impact today, through inter-generational trauma and in political discourse.

While the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement peace accord largely brought an end to 30-plus years of devastating violence, people in Northern Ireland continue to explore what the future will look like. Peace is a process, not an event.

Over the last quarter century, Stormont has been dominated by fragility, disagreement, and collapse. Indeed, this year it has only been fully functioning since February following a two-year unionist-led dispute over post-Brexit trade arrangements that apply to Northern Ireland but don’t apply to Scotland, England, and Wales.

The government was resuscitated just recently and now the political parties that form the mandatory power-sharing government are trying to present a united front while also competing with each other for Westminster seats.

British unionists standing for office talk a lot about strengthening Northern Ireland’s position as part of the U.K. Non-unionists tend to focus on what they view as the failure of the current U.K. government to adequately provide for the region.

The latter group currently has more seats at Westminster, having overtaken the British unionist parties’ hold on the Northern Ireland delegation for the first time in the 2019 Westminster election. That year, the nationalist parties Sinn Féin and SDLP won seven and two seats, respectively; the unionist DUP won eight seats, and the Alliance Party, neither nationalist nor unionist, won one.

The main aim of Sinn Féin—the Irish political party with historical links to the Irish Republican Army (IRA)—is the reunification of Ireland.

It believes the island should never have been partitioned, and that its people would be best served by an all-island government in the future.

It has an electoral presence in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland, and in recent years has emerged as the largest party of local and devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin MPs do not take their seats in London. Rather, they abstain from parliament as a form of protest—on the basis that British and Irish people are better off taking control of their own fortunes. They do not accept Westminster MP salaries but do claim expenses to carry out constituency work around areas such as housing, amenities, and public services.

The smaller Irish nationalist party, the SDLP, while rejecting the British oath of allegiance, say the words to be able to take their seats. SDLP MPs believe that for as long as Northern Ireland is part of the U.K., it’s their duty to try to influence policy from the inside, and not leave unionists as the only voices inside the London parliament.

Ultimately Sinn Féin and the SDLP want the same thing: a new, reconciled and reunified all-Ireland constitutional future.

The Alliance Party, formed more than 50 years ago, has emerged in recent years as the third major electoral force in Northern Ireland. It is a “cross-community” party, takes no fixed position on unification, and therefore is described as “other” on the political spectrum, along with the likes of the Green Party.

Alliance attracts support from unionists and republicans, from those who could be persuadable in either direction, and from those not motivated by the topic at all. In this way, they offer representation for those who want an alternative to the traditional binary constitutional positions of political parties in this part of the world.

With society dividing roughly 40-40-20 (unionist, nationalist/republican, and others, respectively), Alliance voters will be extremely important when it’s time for people in Northern Ireland to decide to vote to reunite with Ireland at some time in the future.

The Good Friday Agreement allows the U.K. government to call for such a referendum, known as a border poll, under any circumstances; it is accepted that the most likely scenario in which they would do so is when it’s clear most people would vote for Irish unity. That day may not be as far away as it once felt.

I do not see Northern Ireland existing as it has in the years ahead. Its foundations aren’t solid, and its demographics and political landscape are changing. The old certainties of the past no longer exist. Background does not automatically indicate a constitutional preference but statistics suggest that the youngest people here, and the next batches of voters, are more likely to come from Catholic, nationalist, republican communities. The oldest citizens are more likely to be from Protestant, unionist, loyalist communities.

Post-Brexit, conversations about the constitutional future have only accelerated. There is a widespread view that the U.K.’s departure from the E.U. has been disastrous, which has provided impetus to those who seek an alternative future.

I do not see Northern Ireland existing as it has in the years ahead. Its foundations aren’t solid, and its demographics and political landscape are changing.

Of course, the constitutional future isn’t the only issue citizens care about.

The health service, the economy and cost of living, education, climate, and a host of other issues are important to citizens, too—if poorly addressed because of the general dysfunction that permeates all areas of life, and the structural inadequacies that sometimes make progress feel impossible.

The July election results will impact life in Northern Ireland in a variety of ways. Some people will vote tactically, declare “none of the above,” or not bother voting at all.

As frustrating as it can be, participating in the democratic process is an important function of any society, and it’s important to vote. It is a privilege. Throughout the history of the Irish civil rights movement and other rights movements around the world, people have died for their rights. And as a feminist, I am acutely aware that women were denied the right to vote in the not-so-distant past.

As dysfunctional as it is here, I love this place and its people. We deserve a bright future, an abundance of opportunities, and peace and reconciliation to be central to it all. There is something about a community that has experienced great suffering that produces many decent, empathetic, loving, and funny people. Dark episodes often build resilience and humanity. Every election in Northern Ireland offers an opportunity to channel those strengths to build a better future—even if indirectly, for now.

Labour is most likely to win. Once a new parliament is formed, Labour’s response to Northern Ireland’s political reform, funding levels, equality provisions, the legacy of the violent past, infrastructure projects, and a future border poll, will be where the focus shifts.


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