Northern Ireland is well known for its deep divisions. But as the 2019 general election approaches its five main political parties are united on at least one thing – strong opposition to the Brexit deal negotiated by Boris Johnson’s government with the European Union.
Unionist parties fear that the current terms of the withdrawal agreement would leave Northern Ireland economically detached from the rest of the UK, posing a long-term risk to the union with Great Britain. Nationalist parties see Brexit as a decision imposed on Northern Ireland against its will, and ultimately seek a united Ireland within the EU.
Meanwhile the Alliance Party, neither nationalist nor unionist, sees Brexit as a threat to community relations within Northern Ireland. It wants a fresh referendum with an option to Remain on the ballot.
Taken together, the complex interplay of Brexit with Northern Ireland’s underlying ethno-national divisions makes the forthcoming election one of the most consequential and unpredictable for some time.
Divisions within unionism
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) goes into the election defending ten seats. After signing a confidence-and-supply agreement with Theresa May’s minority Conservative government in 2017, its MPs have been influential over the last parliament. However, they were apparently not influential enough to prevent the government from agreeing to “a border down the Irish Sea”.
The smaller Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which held a pro-Remain position in the 2016 referendum, is challenging the Leave-supporting DUP over its handling of Brexit. While the DUP still supports leaving the EU “as one United Kingdom”, the UUP’s new leader says it would be better to “cancel Brexit” than implement the current deal.
However, the UUP faces an uphill struggle. It presents a realistic challenge to the DUP in South Antrim, a seat it narrowly lost in 2017, but it is starting from a low base. Its overall credibility has been further weakened by tactically standing aside in Belfast North, boosting the DUP’s chances in a close race with Sinn Féin.
Principle versus pragmatism
Aside from the DUP, Sinn Féin was the only other party in Northern Ireland to win seats at the last general election. However, unlike the DUP (and one independent MP), none of its seven MPs took their seats at Westminster, which reflected the party’s longstanding principle of abstentionism. The last two years marked the first period since 1966 that no nationalist MPs represented a Northern Irish constituency in the House of Commons.
With so many knife-edge votes during the course of the last parliament, there had been regular speculation that Sinn Féin might suddenly abandon its abstentionist position. Such a prospect never materialised; the party’s “refusal to validate British sovereignty” in Northern Ireland continues to outweigh any short-term desire to influence the outcome of Brexit.
This provides the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) with an opportunity to distinguish itself from its larger nationalist rival. Having lost Foyle to Sinn Féin by just 169 votes in 2017, the SDLP is sparing no effort to win it back, arguing that a vote for the party is a chance to “stop Boris and stop Brexit”. But, like the UUP, it also stood aside in Belfast North – in this case to help Sinn Féin.
Beyond the ethno-national divide
While Brexit has to some extent reinvigorated the constitutional issue in Northern Ireland, a growing segment of the population is choosing to reject the labels of unionist and nationalist, identifying instead as “neither”. However, this group has generally not been a significant electoral force.
Things appeared to change earlier in 2019. In May’s local elections the Alliance Party increased its number of councillors by 65%. The Alliance “surge” continued the following month when its leader, Naomi Long, was elected to the European parliament. Securing nearly one in five first preferences across Northern Ireland, this was the party’s highest vote share of any election since it was founded in 1970.
If Alliance is able to consolidate or even increase its overall vote share, a different electoral system could make it more difficult this time around for support to translate into seats (a proportional system was used in the local and European elections). That said, the party’s calls for a referendum could help it gain traction in North Down, a traditionally unionist constituency where a majority of voters backed Remain in 2016.
More broadly, Alliance will be trying to tap into a widespread sense of frustration with the status quo, with the DUP and Sinn Féin likely to bear the brunt of any blame for the ongoing stalemate in the Northern Ireland Assembly. With healthcare workers on strike over “unsafe” conditions, concerns are deepening over the direction of public services. The growing salience of these concerns – relatively late in the campaign – adds a further source of unpredictability ahead of one of the most competitive elections in Northern Ireland for some time.