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Gavin Robinson.
Gavin Robinson was only confirmed as the DUP’s new leader after the election was called. Alamy/Liam McBurney

Northern Ireland: the three electoral threats keeping the DUP awake at night

“Get Brexit done” was the slogan that carried then prime minister Boris Johnson to an 80-seat majority in the 2019 general election. And sure enough, his government did indeed go on to secure the UK’s exit from the European Union.

The “B” word has scarcely surfaced during the 2024 campaign so far, at least in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, however, it continues to shape political debate. That’s because Johnson’s promise in 2019 that “"there will be no checks on goods going from GB to NI, or NI to GB”, simply did not align with reality.

In short, while Northern Ireland left the EU along with the rest of the UK, it has effectively remained in the EU’s customs union and the single market for goods. This was to avoid creating new border infrastructure between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland but has created a new customs and regulatory border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The result has been political destabilisation for unionists in Northern Ireland, whose ideological raison d’être, after all, is the preservation of Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

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The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the dominant party in the unionist bloc, has been under particular strain. It lost seats in the last general election – leaving unionist MPs in the minority for the first time – owing in no small part to the DUP’s simultaneous support of Brexit and apparent failure to reduce the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland. In the upcoming election the party faces a renewed challenge on three main fronts.

1. TUV: the hardline unionist challenge

First, there is the threat from the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). In 2019 the TUV didn’t actually contest any seats in Northern Ireland. At the time it was largely on the same page as the DUP on Brexit: fully supportive of a hard exit, but staunchly opposed to any softer exit for Northern Ireland.

Since then, it has accused the DUP of “betrayal” over its February 2024 Brexit deal with the UK government.

This deal was sealed by then leader Jeffrey Donaldson. His successor, Gavin Robinson, has claimed the party initially oversold what had been negotiated.

The deal did include some clear changes, but the DUP now enters the election with a pledge to “continue to fight to fully restore Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom, including removing the application of EU law in our country and the internal Irish Sea Border it creates”.

In most circumstances it would be unthinkable for a party to make such a concession and effectively reverse such a major position within a matter of months, but even more unthinkable was the sudden resignation of Donaldson over sex offence charges (which he says he will be contesting) in March.

Robinson had been the party’s deputy leader, but is now clearly seeking to distance himself from the Donaldson deal, neutralise TUV attacks and, crucially, move on.

Jeffrey Donaldson and another man surrounded by police and the press.
Donaldson attends court over sex offence charges. EPA

The TUV is highly unlikely to win any seats from the DUP, and recent polling suggests it will remain the smallest of the three main unionist parties. Instead, like the challenge to the Conservatives from Reform UK (which, incidentally, has a formal partnership with the TUV), the TUV may undermine the DUP’s prospects by fragmenting the unionist vote in the most competitive constituencies the latter party is defending.

2. The UUP: the moderate unionist challenge

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), in contrast, has a good chance of winning South Antrim from the DUP – as it did in 2015. Like the DUP and TUV, the UUP also opposed the post-Brexit arrangements introduced for Northern Ireland, but it had opposed Brexit to begin with and typically presents itself as a more pragmatic and moderate unionist party.

It has been in the shadow of the DUP for the last two decades and while a reversal in positions doesn’t appear imminent, the UUP will be hoping to at least narrow the gap with its larger rival.

3. Alliance: the non-unionist challenge

Finally, the DUP doesn’t just risk being squeezed by parties within Northern Ireland’s unionist bloc, but also by the non-aligned Alliance party. Having successfully mobilised an anti-Brexit (and anti-DUP) coalition of voters in 2019, it won the formerly unionist seat of North Down for the first time in 2019 and secured 17% of all votes cast across Northern Ireland.

After a string of electoral successes that year, the party has been a prominent player in a system otherwise dominated by unionism and nationalism.

Naomi Long.
Naomi Long of the Alliance party. EPA/Mark Marlow

In July, Alliance will be seeking to defend its sole seat, with two others potentially within reach. In Lagan Valley, the party is vying to take the seat held by Donaldson since 1997 (which he will not be contesting).

In East Belfast, meanwhile, party leader Naomi Long is challenging Robinson, who holds the seat with a majority of less than 2,000 – the slimmest of any being defended by the DUP. Long previously held the seat between 2010 and 2015 – until she herself was defeated by Robinson.

The best case scenario for the DUP is that it successfully holds each of its eight seats. That is not impossible. The worst case for the party is that it loses three or more, including those of its leader and former leader. Relatively few votes will determine which kind of scenario transpires.

What can be predicted with much greater confidence is that at least half of Northern Ireland’s constituencies will, once again, be represented by non-unionist MPs. That in itself means the election won’t end fundamental questions about the future direction of unionism in Northern Ireland, but the results might help answer the extent to which it can (or can’t) move on from Brexit.

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