Northern Ireland slipping away

With the United Kingdom consumed in political wrangling over its prospective exit from the European Union, it would be easy to miss last week’s parliamentary election in Northern Ireland. But it marked an important milestone: for the first time, Unionist control of the province appears to be slipping, and the idea of a united Ireland is edging towards the realm of the politically possible.

When the UK voted last year to leave the EU, the majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland went the same way. But nationalist sentiment there was strongly in favor of “remain”, which carried the day with 55.8% of the Northern Ireland vote.

The decision to leave creates a big problem in Northern Ireland, with its busy and open border with the Republic of Ireland now set to become an external EU border. But the vote also showed the political shift under way in the province itself, with Unionist sentiment no longer able to carry the day at the ballot box.

When the Northern Ireland government collapsed at the beginning of this year, however, it was due to domestic issues. A scandal over a renewable energy scheme discredited the first minister, Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party, leading to the resignation of Sinn Féin and the calling of early elections.

The result has left the DUP as still the largest party, but only just: it won 28.1% of the vote (down 1.1%) and 28 of the 90 seats, just 1,168 votes ahead of Sinn Féin, with 27.9% (up 3.9%) and 27 seats. Before the election, in a larger Assembly, they had 38 and 28 seats respectively out of 108.

Even more interesting are the totals. The three Unionist parties, with 43.6% of the vote, won only 39 seats between them – the first time they have ever been in a minority. The addition of one Unionist independent gives them the narrowest of pluralities, against 39 nationalists. The remaining 11 seats are held by non-sectarian parties: eight for the liberal Alliance, two Greens, and one Trotskyist.

Because of the power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland, the precise balance of parliamentary power is not very important. The DUP will provide the first minister and Sinn Féin the deputy first minister (apart from the titles, the two are basically equal), although there may be a considerable amount of haggling involved first.

But the underlying shift in voter sentiment is hugely significant. In the 95 years of Northern Ireland’s existence, through many different political regimes, the one constant has always been that the nationalists were a permanent minority. That can no longer be taken as given.

Population growth favors the mostly-nationalist Catholics over the mostly-Unionist protestants. And many of the old sectarian divisions are looking anachronistic; the Alliance, which draws support from both communities, had its best result since the return of home rule in 1998. Clearly, many people would like to have a normal party system rather than one based on the fossilised attitudes of a century ago.

But if sectarian lines fade in importance, it’s hard to see much point in staying part of the UK. The Republic, with its continued EU membership, might be starting to look more attractive.

The Northern Ireland Act of 1998, which implements the Good Friday agreement and institutionalises power sharing, repeats the British government’s guarantees that Northern Ireland will not be cut loose without its own consent. But, section 1 (2) goes on to add,

… if the wish expressed by a majority in such a poll is that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland, the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament such proposals to give effect to that wish as may be agreed between Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and the Government of Ireland.

It won’t happen soon, but such a vote is now looking like more than a theoretical possibility.

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