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Katy Hayward: The very basis on which Northern Ireland was created has been ripped up by the election

Northern Ireland has elected a group of MPs more moderate and more diverse than the parliament they are entering, writes Katy Hayward.

Katy Hayward Political sociologist

WELL, NO-ONE SAW that coming. A hulking Tory majority is one thing. A Northern Ireland suite of MPs more moderate and more diverse than the parliament they are entering is quite another.

Much has been made of the fact that Ulster unionism is now a minority position in both the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and rightly so. The very basis on which Northern Ireland was created – to provide safe grounds for British identity on the island of Ireland – has been rendered asunder.

As the UK enters a new era of electoral politics – the end of centrism, the end of the left as we know it, the end of EU membership – Northern Ireland is also changing, but in a very different way.

The 2017 election left the region in a two-tone form: you could take your pick of any colour, as long as it was green or orange. 2019 has given Northern Ireland a rainbow rinse. The DUP and Sinn Féin are still dominant, but their vote share has dropped. The middle ground Alliance party is not only taking seats, it is taking votes from the DUP. And the SDLP has made a remarkable recovery, primarily by being so much in the centre ground that it can take seats from both the DUP and Sinn Féin.

But what does all this mean? Isn’t it a bit late for Northern Ireland to decide that it’s going to be Remain and centrist? Possibly.

The hope of ‘stopping Brexit’ by having a Remain voice in the House of Commons certainly spurred the surge of support for the Alliance party and the SDLP, but it is too late. Even if they punch above their weight, the region’s MPs will not be courted by the incoming Conservative government – indeed, they will be probably by given short shrift. And the Labour party has its own ‘process of reflection’ to get through.

No, the real effect of these results will be felt much closer to home than Westminster. Talks to restore the devolved Assembly and Executive begin on Monday. These election results mean that there is more hope now than at any point in the past three years of the talks ending in agreement.

The role of Stormont right now 

This is important because if Northern Ireland is to get through these coming few rocky years (and they will be rocky), it will need to have properly functioning devolved government. This is for three main reasons.

First, the UK is a different country. Things have changed utterly. Parliament is now all set to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement that contains the Protocol on Northern Ireland/Ireland that every single party in Northern Ireland objects to. And that will clear the way to a hard Brexit which could well lead to friction in the movement of goods between Great Britain and the island of Ireland. This will bring economic as well as political and symbolic challenges to Northern Ireland. These will need political leadership based in Northern Ireland and working for Northern Ireland to manage. The current zombie status of governance of the region is resulting in an increasing stench of failure in service-delivery – it cannot continue.

Secondly, the DUP has been chastened. Quite reasonably, its unexpected position of influence following the 2017 UK general election caused it to concentrate all its energies on London. But we know how that ended. The Tories lost the confidence of the DUP and the DUP refused to supply its votes. In the end, Conservative MPs did little to hide their delight in waving goodbye to the party’s irritating country cousins.

Looking ahead: if Scotland votes for independence and if England buckles down to a process of reclaiming national sovereignty, then Ulster unionism will feel increasingly insecure. There are two ways to respond to this: with renewed intransigence or with assured inclusivity. In a situation of such minority status both within Northern Ireland and across the UK, intransigence would only worsen the DUP’s isolation and alienate its sympathetic friends. Besides, it doesn’t have the manpower to give strength to its elbow. It has little real choice but to compromise. Getting Stormont up and running should be a priority for the party because it could still wield real power at regional level.

Finally, the middle ground has voted. Unionism needs to listen to the reasons why the DUP lost votes in such numbers to the Alliance party, and why it lost seats to Sinn Féin and the SDLP. This wasn’t a pan-nationalist front – it was a result of middle ground voters deciding to make their vote count, almost in a desperate act of hope against fear. And the middle ground also cost Sinn Féin votes and a seat as well. Irish nationalism is also on the cusp of a new era, but it must listen to the views of the moderate, small ‘u’ unionist if it wishes to even begin to build a sure foundation for unity.

Where this might lead nobody can really predict. But what we can be sure of is that the decisions made in the coming days and weeks will decide the future of the union and, more generally, the prospects for Irish unity in our lifetime. Unionists and nationalists are not born but made. And they can change their minds. The evidence suggests that the less unionists engage with their nationalist and non-aligned neighbours, the more likely they are to find themselves outnumbered and outplanned.

Katy Hayward is a senior fellow of The UK in a Changing Europe centre based at Queen’s University Belfast. 

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Katy Hayward  / Political sociologist

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