Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald (2nd, R), deputy leader Michelle O'Neill walk alongside senior party members Conor Murphy (R) and John Finucane (L) at Stormont. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The myth of the latest thing

Can Northern Irish politics evolve beyond nationalism and republicanism?

Sinn Fein (SF) is now the largest party in Northern Ireland with 27 of the 90 Assembly seats, narrowly defeating the Democratic Unionist Party with 25 seats. So how did we arrive here?

In terms of the campaign, Sinn Fein played it low-key. It downplayed talk of a referendum to abolish Northern Ireland. Its prospective candidate for First Minister Michelle O’Neill had a limited media role, given instead to party leader Mary Lou McDonald and North Belfast MP John Finucane. O’Neill tends not to poll well amongst other party voters, and the party wished to avoid any pre-emptive triumphalism thwarting a win (à la Kinnock in the 1992 election). It held all its seats and added one per cent to its vote. SF learned the power of the First Minister issue at the ballot box.

This success was ably assisted by its primary rivals for the nationalist vote, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) who lost its Deputy Leader Nichola Mallon. In the 2019 Westminster elections Sinn Fein had a bigger drop in vote share than the DUP did, with SDLP the beneficiaries. The SDLP who had previously adopted a timid approach towards SF instead came out swinging, and it worked.

In 2022 SDLP sat in the corner and said please don’t hurt me

In 2022 it regressed. It sat in the corner and said please don’t hurt me. Instead, it targeted its ire at the DUP, for whom it does not compete with votes. This form of SDLP campaign had been used repeatedly in previous Assembly elections and had never worked.

Alliance canvassers in nationalist areas picked up a mid-campaign shift to Sinn Fein. Chronologically this coincided with the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood’s concession that O’Neill would win the First Ministership. After the election he argued SDLP voters had lent their votes, but he publicly authorised the loan with SF gaining 73 per cent of the Irish separatist vote.

Within Unionism the key questions were could Sir Jeffrey Donaldson maintain the DUP predominance within Unionism and stay the largest party overall? Yes and no.

Following the debacle of removing Arlene Foster as DUP leader and the speedy fall of her successor Edwin Poots, polling predicted a near three way split in Unionism between the DUP, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).

Donaldson had inherited a ship holed below the water line with severe flooding. In a year he had managed to plug the hole and pump out much of the water but not enough. About 300 votes in North Antrim and 1800 votes in Strangford (the top two constituencies of the TUV) would likely have made it a draw. 540 more votes in West Belfast could have delivered the twenty-eighth and winning seat.

The NIO and others who had counselled London that earlier action on the Protocol would not make much difference, were wrong to claim the result was baked in.

However, a sense of relief should not lead to a DUP victory lap. The DUP came second. It lost one in four voters from the 2017 Assembly. It lost one in three voters compared with the 2017 Westminster vote. It made the right call on candidate numbers and introducing new candidates but its campaign messaging was overly negative, didn’t use the broader appeal of Jeffrey Donaldson well enough and its border poll line didn’t land (as it hadn’t when previously used). After the trials of COVID people needed hope, too.

Good ship DUP did avoid being sunk but still needs to be made fully seaworthy again. It may have eked out the equivalent of the Tories in 1992 amongst Unionism, but if it does not get ship shape it will surely face its 1997.

The UUP, under Doug Beattie, had set out his ground as being the liberal Unionist offer. The best long-term strategic choice for the UUP, but it had cack-handed implementation (all liberal and little Unionism) resulted in its vote treading water and losing a seat.

The Unionist party that made the breakthrough was the TUV. Its tag line on the ballot paper was “No Sea Border”. The difference in votes between the DUP and SF matches the TUV vote. The creation and part implementation of the Protocol, with its costly impracticality and assault on the foundations of the United Kingdom (which were always as economic as they were political), broke the voter coalition the DUP had built and maintained since 2003. A failure by the DUP to prioritise the Protocol issue would have made the electoral damage deeper.

Until 2017 liberal voters held their noses and voted DUP

The TUV factor reduced the DUP to 53 per cent of the total Unionist vote. The ability of SF to secure a much higher proportion of its voting bloc gained the victory.

The standard media analysis of NI elections has been two-fold, that it is a mini-referendum on NI’s place within the UK and who is the strongest within the two main blocs. This has been breaking down, but this election destroyed the old paradigm. Non-constitutionally focused parties or Others had 10 seats in 2017. This time they won 17 seats with the Alliance party cannibalising the Green Party (two seats), Nationalism (four seats) and Unionism (three seats). Interestingly Alliance didn’t add to its vote level from 2019 (when it basically doubled from 2017) but it consolidated and was highly transfer friendly.

What is behind this? For many in NI their political outlook was shaped by the politics of birth combined with the politics of push, being born into one community combined with the push of terrorist violence to maintain allegiance. The post-Agreement generations have been spared the latter and the former has declined (driven by demographic and social factors and the bruising Brexit battles). They associate both ideologies with a dark past that they want nothing to do with. When they go to the ballot box, they do not view it as a mini referendum but what NI are they going to be living in.

The standard sectarian nationalist assumption that “demography as destiny” would hand them a majority has not happened. Instead, a new “community” has developed. Notably it appears to function as a barrier to nationalist growth. Nationalist parties have been bumping along around 36–41 per cent for 20 years as this segment has expanded.

Until this election, Alliance tended to encroach more on Unionism. This was a product of the dysfunction in the Unionist offer.

Until 2017 the DUP vote coalition did have a segment of liberal voters that held their noses and voted DUP: “Don’t like them but they are keeping the show on the road”. However, the DUP pedigree meant it was not the Unionist vehicle to fill that space. Since the UUP lost top spot, it has flailed around with little consistency between elections on what it was for. It played with the liberal space but would not commit as many of its existing members, and voters were uneasy. Beattie and the UUP seems committed to it now but with its erratic history, voters who went Alliance have grounds for scepticism. Alliance will need to make errors to noticeably shed voters back.

In many Unionist constituencies the scale of UUP decline meant Alliance had or vied for second spot, so over time voters saw them as the local alternative to the DUP. Alliance also has better organised modern campaigners than both the DUP and UUP.

Alliance have now begun a similar process amongst nationalist voters taking advantage of the inability of the SDLP to define itself. The SDLP draws strength from the “legacy” of John Hume, but its predicament is his legacy. It had fulfilled its original purpose, much of the Belfast Agreement. Hume did not have any real vision or plan for the SDLP after 1998. Notably, in a number of constituencies it is a SF seat that Alliance could be taking next time.

As individual parties rise and fall and a new voting bloc emerges, is a referendum imminent? Will there be a majority to abolish Northern Ireland? No and no.

The legal threshold for a referendum is not close to being met. Unionism received more votes and MLAs than Nationalism. All polling amongst Others shows a clear majority to stay in the UK as it does amongst non-voters (likelier to vote in a referendum).

Sinn Fein has called for a Citizens Assembly to develop a plan for a referendum in five years. On one level this demonstrates the poverty of Irish separatism. After 100 years of demanding NI be removed from the UK, neither SF nor anyone else has something as basic as a plan.

This is before you get to whether a plan can be agreed, realistic or deliverable. Much of the existing “thinking” leans heavily in wishing away problems. Irish public opinion is massively for it in principle but drops significantly on practicalities. On changes to accommodate Unionists the average Irish voter views the process as simply absorption. These risks can easily combine to make any developed offer dead on arrival.

All Unionist parties need to fully modernise their campaigning

Sinn Fein predominance on either side of the border does not help either. University of Liverpool 2019 post-election polling showed that whatever the DUP’s problems amongst Others, SF’s were worse (despite their embrace of various liberal causes).

Like much of Irish nationalist thought, SF is shaped by historical determinism; its goal is inevitable. In communication terms this relies heavily on the myth of momentum. Its strength is that the media will always lap it up. The weakness is that it is almost invariably untrue. SF has had more dates for a 32-county socialist republic than Pat Robertson for the end of the earth. The next one will be happily gobbled up and the old one forgotten. When this mind trick fails, so falls the movement à la Quebec nationalism. The largest party is simply the “latest thing” for the myth of momentum.

The SNP is from the same stable. Nicola Sturgeon happily hitched her wagon to Irish republicanism after the result — this “latest thing” in NI makes the breakup of the UK more inevitable. Ignore Council results (55 per cent vs 45 per cent) and polls (58 per cent vs 42 per cent); this “latest thing” is what is important. Interestingly, another consequence of London’s inaction on the Protocol is a UK with two separatist First Ministers (and a third whose lifelong anti-Tory stance will have him making much common cause too) — a communications rod of its own making.

So, Unionism can put its feet up? No, because it is significantly underperforming. It must fully reflect on the gap between referendum Unionism and political Unionism. It needs to ensure it can maintain its referendum lead and do what it can to reduce the referendum vs political gap.

The maintenance of the referendum lead requires the development of non-party campaigning structures and think tanks, their role to reach the places Unionist parties presently do not. The declining politics of birth and disappeared politics of push must be replaced by the politics of persuasion.

Each party will have to reflect on its messaging, branding and candidate development and how broadly it wants to appeal. All Unionist parties need to fully modernise their campaigning to compete better with Alliance.

There is a regular desire for one Unionist party amongst a significant segment of Unionist. However, it is hard to see how that reduces the gap between referendum and political Unionism especially at the Assembly. An idea potentially worth examining is a variation on the Parti Quebecois and Bloc Quebecois model: a single Unionist party for Westminster elections but a range of choices at Assembly level.

This model would allow Unionist MPs to focus on articulating the needs of Northern Ireland and national issues as we help write the next chapter of the UK. A range of Unionist parties at Assembly offers the broadest choice to Northern Ireland. It gives some protection from cross-infection between issues within Parliament and the Assembly. Some would see this as an opportunity to rekindle a relationship with the Conservative Party, but after the Confidence and Supply experience and the anti-Tory attitudes amongst Others (especially younger voters) this would be problematic. Neither would it be straightforward to agree nor implement.

The expressed Unionist intention to do anything to maintain Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom must include the ability and willingness to adapt, improve and grow not simply repeat. A few years ago, when I worked in the DUP, I developed a deep dive presentation into all the available data. The last slide stated, “What got us here isn’t going to keep us here.” It is still true.

Unionists must recognise that NI’s first century is complete, and we have a new century ahead of us. Unionism shaped the first; now it is our job to shape its next one.

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