Sarah Howe travelled to Belfast to observe the Northern Ireland Assembly Election held in May this year. In this article she reflects upon the win by Sinn Féin, breaking years of domination by Protestant unionists. However, the election also told the story of the rise of non-sectarian parties in Northern Ireland. This article will examine this trend and ask whether this means that sectarianism is on the decline, and instead economic and social issues are the main concern of voters. Sarah Howe is the National Chair of the Australian Fabians and a member of the Australian Labor Party. Charles Richardson is a Melbourne-based political philosopher and expert on European elections.
George Bernard Shaw, an early British Fabian and influential social critic, essayist and playwright was born in Dublin. His observations of social life in Ireland led to a lifelong dedication to writing about the struggle against poverty and injustice that he observed in his childhood on the streets of Dublin. We can relate to Shaw’s writing, as Australian progressives care about Ireland. There is a strong emotional connection between the two countries; a long history of Irish political and economic migration has seen over 300,000 Irish settlers arriving here since the 19th Century.
This article examines the recent Northern Ireland election, held on 6 May this year, and asks whether people were voting along traditional class lines, on economic and social issues, or whether sectarian issues were still the key factor. The election saw Sinn Féin become the largest party, consolidating its hold in Catholic/nationalist areas and winning 29 per cent of the vote – the first time that a nationalist party has been in that position. Its leader Michelle O’Neill is set to become the First Minister, in a symbolic endorsement of the party’s agenda for a united Ireland. However, there are questions around the practical significance of Sinn Féin’s victory for the achievement of its aims. It may be that an equally significant outcome of the poll could be the split within the Unionist vote and the dramatic increase in a ‘third party’ vote.
Nationalist and unionist voices
Ireland has been partitioned since May 1921, when the Government of Ireland Act 1920 created the state of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of the same year led to independence for the rest of Ireland, but partition became a continuing grievance. When the anti-Treaty Fianna Fáil party came to power in Ireland in the 1930s, it adopted a new constitution which claimed sovereignty over the entire island. Achieving a united Ireland is a central goal of Irish nationalism, particularly of Irish republican political and paramilitary organisations such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which waged a long conflict with British security forces and loyalist paramilitaries from the 1960s to the 1990s, known as ‘The Troubles’.
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which ended the conflict, acknowledged the legitimacy of the desire for a united Ireland, while declaring that it could be achieved only with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. In talking to republicans in Belfast and Dublin, it was clear that the campaign for a united Ireland was the main issue for them in determining how they voted in the May election. Sinn Féin ran strongly on the border issue, and republicans on the ground indicated that was the main issue for them in the vote. A group of republicans interviewed in Belfast were upbeat about an impending victory by Sinn Féin, but also were realistic about what the result would mean:
‘to us it’s about getting rid of that border and the reality is that the system is about power-sharing and it’s going to take a very long time to win a referendum for a united Ireland….it may take six years, but it will happen.’
In the Brexit referendum of June 2016, voters across the United Kingdom were asked whether they wanted to leave or remain in the European Union (EU). A narrow majority voted to leave, but in Northern Ireland, 56 per cent of voters voted to remain in the EU. This result, and continuing uncertainty over the impact of Brexit on the Irish border, has led to calls to revisit the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, in order to avoid the requirement for a possible hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Sinn Féin, buoyed by the result, called for a referendum on a united Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s unionists – especially the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which shared power with Sinn Féin on the Northern Ireland executive – oppose reunification and insist that Northern Ireland should be treated the same as the rest of the United Kingdom. Neither got what it wanted; instead a Northern Ireland Protocol agreement was struck by the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and came into force in January 2021, meaning that Northern Ireland still follows some EU trade rules, thus avoiding checks on goods crossing the Irish border. But it remains controversial, with the British government trying to renegotiate aspects of the deal.
Speaking in Australia just last month, the president of Sinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald, boasted that ‘We are living now in the end days of partition,’ and blamed the British government for the problems surrounding Brexit:
‘Throughout the Brexit negotiations with the EU, the British government has cynically used the protocol discussion and political and economic issues as bargaining chips. There is no good Brexit for Ireland. The protocol protects an all-Ireland economy and access of Northern Ireland to the Single Market. This is a good thing. ... The Good Friday Agreement has outlasted [Boris] Johnson. The next British PM must go with the spirit of 1998.’
However, with the decline of sectarianism there is a ‘middle ground’ voice emerging in the electorate, a new middle class voting on economic or social issues. According to an interview with a former British soldier in the Protestant area of Belfast:
‘there is 40 per cent of a middle class now in Belfast voting for “proper reasons” such as issues to do with the economy and health, but 60 per cent will always vote along orange/green lines and you will never get these rusted on people switching and the Alliance parties and the Green parties are stealing the middle ground with the Unionist vote splitting down the middle with the rise of the Ulster Unionists which are aligned with the Conservative party in Britain.’
The dramatically increased vote for the liberal Alliance Party, which designates itself as neither republican nor loyalist, indicates a significant shift away from sectarian politics towards political pragmatism. Alliance voters are young and they are often women and they care about social issues. As Mary Lou McDonald reported, ‘there were people [in Belfast] talking to me everywhere, the unionists, and they were saying what are you doing on pensions, on healthcare?’
Back in the 1980s, Sally Belfrage published The Crack: A Belfast Year (1987), in which she ranged over republican and loyalist areas of Belfast, identifying a frustrated sense that despite the conflict, poverty had to be dealt with and that political parties needed to respond to the immediate issues of economic disadvantage, despite the importance of symbolic sectarian issues:
‘... let me tell you, when I rise in the morning, my first thought’s not what religion I am. A bag of coal is £7.40, that’s what I get up thinking about. I forget about my religion. I seldom think about it.’
During the 1980s, unemployment in Northern Ireland was high. Public services were maintained only by enormous subsidies from the rest of the United Kingdom and the economy was dominated by multinational subsidiaries. An interview with a Belfast academic in Melbourne confirmed this picture of the Northern Ireland economy at the time:
‘schools, electrification and water infrastructure were all terrible in the 1970s … the image of Ireland at this time was Gaelic, rural and Catholic. Infrastructure was built to consolidate us as separate to the South, with the main highway being built from Belfast to Derry rather than to Dublin … this has held us back economically.’
In Belfast, I observed a general feeling of economic malaise with many buildings in disrepair, and a sense of little activity in the empty central mall, with most retail shops devoid of customers. However, despite this economic picture, Unionists on the ground in Belfast argue that there is no value to the economy in Northern Ireland joining the EU. A former British solider interviewed in Belfast said that it’s ‘just gravy train money’ that will mean nothing of substance to the economy. Indeed, recent economic analysis suggests that the Northern Ireland economy, protected by the protocol, is outpacing post-Brexit Britain.
Analysing the result
The Northern Ireland Assembly is elected by proportional representation in each of 18 constituencies (the same constituencies used for elections to the British parliament at Westminster). Each constituency returns five members, for a total of ninety. Until 2017, the unionist parties always won a majority of seats. In that year, however, their aggregate share of the vote fell to 45 per cent, and they won only 40 of the 90 seats. Nationalist parties won 39, and the remaining eleven went to parties that do not identify as either unionist or nationalist – most of them (eight seats) to the liberal Alliance Party.
This year’s election saw, on the one hand, the continuation of the trend already evident in 2017. Unionist parties in aggregate fell further, to 42 per cent of the vote and 37 seats. And this time the Alliance, rather than the nationalists, was clearly the main beneficiary: it won 13.5 per cent of the vote and more than doubled its tally of seats to 17. But on the other hand, there was a shift within both the nationalist and unionist camps.
On the nationalist side, Sinn Féin increased its vote slightly and held all of its 27 seats, but the more moderate Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP) lost four seats to finish with just eight, its lowest-ever representation. Among the unionists both the DUP and its traditional moderate rival, the Ulster Unionists (UUP), lost ground, while the more hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice trebled its vote to 7.6 per cent, although it failed to add to its single seat. The SDLP and the UUP, which once dominated the politics of the province, now have only a fifth of the vote between them.
Where are the Alliance’s voters coming from? Because party allegiance is largely based on community identification, whether nationalist or unionist, and the communities in turn are geographically based, most constituencies have historically been safe for one side or the other. Nine constituencies, all in the north and east of the province, have returned a majority of unionist members at every one of the last four Assembly elections. Another six, in the south and west (plus Belfast West), have invariably returned a nationalist majority. Only three (Belfast North, Belfast South and Fermanagh & South Tyrone) have swung between the two sides.
At this election the Alliance made gains across the board, but its vote is much higher in unionist areas than nationalist areas. Only one of its 13 members was elected from any of the six safe nationalist constituencies; three come from the swing constituencies and nine from the safe unionist constituencies. It looks as if disaffected moderates from both camps have shifted to the Alliance, leaving both the unionist and nationalist vote weighted towards their extreme ends.
On top of this is a long-term demographic shift that has eliminated the once invulnerable unionist majority. According to last year’s census figures, people brought up as Catholic now outnumber those brought up as Protestant (including other Christians), 45.7% to 43.5%. As Mary Lou McDonald told her Australian audience, ‘the unionist majority has gone … and it’s not coming back … a new generation is moving on together and it’s a vote for progress, for real equality, and for partnership.’ With the two communities essentially at parity, it can be argued that the rationale for partition, or for the separate existence of Northern Ireland, has disappeared. But most opinion polling has continued to show majorities against reunification with the republic.
Religious denominations are only a general guide to political preferences; there are both Protestant nationalists and Catholic unionists. There also appear to be a number of Catholics who favour the continuation of the union without identifying themselves as Unionists or British. And as the rise of the Alliance demonstrates (as well as smaller parties like the Greens and the far-left People Before Profit), there are an increasing number of voters who no longer take the sectarian divide as the main feature of the political landscape. They are feeling their way towards a more ‘normal’ party system, where social or economic issues drive political allegiance. But in that situation, what becomes of Northern Ireland as a separate entity?
Where to next?
As the largest party in the new Assembly, Sinn Féin gets to nominate the new First Minister – its Northern Ireland leader, Michelle O’Neill – but she cannot take office until the next largest party, the DUP, agrees to participate in the government and nominates a deputy First Minister. This it has so far refused to do, demanding that the British government should first do its bidding concerning Brexit and the Protocol. It has repeatedly blocked the appointment of a Speaker for the Assembly, preventing any business from being transacted.
Negotiations have continued between Britain, Ireland and the EU to try to resolve the trade issues, but with a new prime minister in Britain, progress has been slow. Chris Heaton-Harris, the new Northern Ireland secretary in Liz Truss’s government, says that he is ‘looking forward to delivering enough pressure so we can get the executive up and running [and] solve the problems of the protocol,’ but he is also holding out the prospect of a fresh election if that fails.
According to the Alliance, the stalemate in Northern Ireland shows that the power-sharing arrangements are no longer appropriate and are frustrating the will of the province’s voters. But with trade, constitutional and sectarian issues so deeply intertwined, progress will require hard decisions to be made before long.
Sarah Howe and Charles Richardson
The Fabian society was founded in 1884 by Edward Pease, Frank Podmore, and Hubert Bland, joined later by Bernard Shaw and Sydney Webb. In Australia, the first Fabian group was formed in 1891; the now Australian Fabian society is a national organisation.
The Fabian tradition is one of achieving social progress through research, education and debate. The Society has no policy beyond that implied in a general commitment to social democracy, and issues its publications as the opinions of their authors not of the organisation. The publishing program is designed to promote informed discussion on issues to further the goals of social democracy.