Northern Ireland in focus
Northern Ireland, as ever, will have its own political dynamic in this general election. Voters will not be choosing the next Prime Minister: the Labour Party does not stand candidates in the region and the Conservatives are only a minimal force. Coming so soon after March’s game-changing contest to the Northern Irish Assembly, which saw combined nationalist votes outstrip those of the unionist vote for the first time ever, this campaign is something of a damp squib. Negotiations on restoring the Executive have been suspended until after the General Election, ensuring political stalemate across the region and fatigue at the prospect of a third election within 13 months. However, the result will be closely watched as a test of longer-term trends to see whether we have passed a watermark with the nationalist challenge, or whether we will see unionists mobilise their base and turn out in droves.
The key issues of the contest are complex and emotive: Brexit negotiations, the future of the Northern Irish Executive and the very existence of Northern Ireland itself. However, these issues are barely discussed in the UK media where Northern Ireland has mainly existed as a backdrop to the national campaign in which Jeremy Corbyn’s relationship with the IRA has been scrutinised by the Conservatives. This fighting of old battles feels very distant from the campaign in the region.
Northern Ireland in numbers
This election should be seen through the prism of the Assembly election results earlier this year, when for the first time, the nationalist vote share outstripped that of the unionist vote. Multiple factors were at play in this contest, which came after the downfall of the Executive due to controversy over a failed public finance scheme. The contentious tone of the election and the death of Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness during the contest had a galvanising effect, particularly within the nationalist community. Turnout rose by almost ten percent on the 2016 Assembly election to 64.78% – the highest level in almost a decade.
Whether this turnout will be matched next week, and in particular whether the nationalist vote share will hold up, is the key question for the General Election. Traditionally the nationalist community does not turn out in as large a numbers for Westminster elections. Sinn Fein candidates refuse to take their seats in Parliament and therefore the party only sees symbolic value in the contests, whereas the smaller SDLP sees it as a chance to maintain relevance. Allied to this is the shock felt by the unionist community of the March election, which the unionist parties hope will galvanise their voters to turn out to help them defend seats this time around.
Many unionist leaders attribute the shock result in March to splits between the two unionist parties (DUP and UUP) and have attempted to build electoral pacts in key defensive seats. Local parties have brokered such a pact in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where Tom Elliott hopes to defend a majority of 500 in one of the most competitive races in the country, and in North Belfast where sitting MP Nigel Dodds faces a challenge from Sinn Fein. However, no agreement could be reached on the East Belfast and South Belfast seats where unionist splits have benefited non-unionist candidates elected in the past: the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long will hope she can pull off the same trick she did in 2010 by taking East Belfast from the DUP.
One other trend to watch is whether there is further consolidation of vote share by the two major parties of the DUP and Sinn Fein at the expense of smaller parties. While this has been a key feature of Assembly elections, Westminster elections have proved more unpredictable with the UUP boosting its seat tally to two and the SDLP retaining its three seats against sustained Sinn Fein challenge. All five of these seats are at risk but both parties will hope they are able to cling on, with the SDLP attacking Sinn Fein abstentionism and running on a pledge to represent Northern Ireland against a Tory majority Government. However the party’s seat in South Down looks vulnerable to Sinn Fein, who did better than expected in the March election. Sinn Fein is looking at the long-term advances it can make in seats where it has previously struggled to win over moderate, middle-class nationalists. It is challenging the SDLP presence by running a new generation of candidates in seats such as Foyle and North Belfast.
For all parties, the Westminster contest is an opportunity to show strength ahead of negotiations to restore the Northern Ireland Executive. If the DUP and the UUP can be seen to lance the nationalist surge from the Assembly elections it may take the wind out of the sails of Sinn Fein when negotiations begin in earnest following June 8th.
March 2017 Assembly election first preference votes
Role in Parliament
When it comes to the role of Northern Irish MPs at Westminster, there could be a substantial shift compared to the last Parliament. With a small majority in the last Parliament the Conservatives could rely on the DUP to vote with their Conservative counterparts on particular issues. The cushion of 8 seats was useful on key votes, including the Brexit bill where the party backed Theresa May’s overall approach. If the Conservatives win a large majority as expected (the latest YouGov poll notwithstanding) the DUP will no longer need to be courted by the Government Whips, and will lose some of this influence. This breathing space may empower Theresa May and the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to take a more independent approach to negotiations within the region, and could help reset relationships with the nationalist parties.
Ultimately though, much like the rest of the UK, the key issue in this election is Brexit. The referendum contest saw the issue split outside of sectarian lines: while the DUP backed Brexit the UUP favoured a Remain vote while on the nationalist side the SDLP led the Remain cause while Sinn Fein largely avoided the issue (largely due to their Eurosceptic position in broader Irish politics). However, since last year’s vote, things have turned to a more traditional sectarian divide, with the Unionist parties looking to make a success of Brexit while both the SDLP and Sinn Fein are fighting to be the anti-Brexit voice of the nationalist community. The SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has now gone as far as to call for a border poll after the Brexit deal is finalised, a significant step for the party, and Sinn Fein have also said the issue is back on the table. When it comes to the negotiations, nationalists want to see Northern Ireland designated with ‘EU special status’ to allow it to retain membership of the customs union in order to protect the current open border arrangement within the island.
Seats in focus
Tom Elliott (UUP)
EU Referendum Result
In what is one of the tightest marginal in the whole of the UK, Fermanagh South Tyrone is on a knife edge as polling day approaches. Sitting candidate Tom Elliott of the UUP has been given a clear run by the DUP to retain the seat as a unionist MP, repeating the arrangement in 2015 when Elliott won the seat by 530 votes. This slim majority is considered a landslide in terms of the history of the seat: in the 2010 election Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew won by a mere 4 votes, making it the most marginal seat in the Parliament. If the Sinn Fein surge continues, we should expect Gildernew to retake the seat – which would be another bitter blow for unionism.
Alasdair McDonnell (SDLP)
EU Referendum Result
The SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell won this once staunchly unionist seat in 2005 by capitalising on unionist split: in 2015 his 24.5 per cent share of the vote was the smallest ever to secure a Westminster seat. The diverse seat – which takes in the leafiest parts of the Belfast, the iterant student vote and some of the poorest wards in the country – is a four way marginal, with four parties each attracting more than 17% of the vote in March’s election. In that contest, the DUP were ahead of the SDLP on just under 21% of the vote compared to the SDLP’s 19%; however McDonnell will be hoping he can gain tactical support from Alliance and Green voters and capitalise on local splits within the DUP. There are concerns though that McDonnell’s anti-abortion stance risks turning these voters off and Sinn Fein may stand to gain some votes.