The End of a Unionist Majority: Where Next for Northern Ireland?

by Donnacha Kirk

5 March 2017

rovingi /Flickr

Northern Ireland came into being as a political entity in 1921. Faced first with the threat of Irish Home Rule then, after the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, with the prospect of an entirely independent Ireland, Ulster unionists armed themselves, organised and agitated to ensure that the north-east of the island would remain in the United Kingdom. They sought as large a territory as possible, consistent with a secure Protestant and Unionist majority. James Craig, the first prime minister of Northern Ireland boasted of securing “a protestant parliament for a protestant people.”

Thursday’s election marked a watershed. For the first time in its history, Northern Ireland has elected a parliament – now the devolved assembly that has operated, on and off, since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 – without a unionist majority.

Taken together the larger Democratic Unionist party (DUP) and the smaller Ulster Unionist party (UUP) have 38 seats. With Jim Allister of Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and Claire Sugden, an independent Unionist and ex-justice minister, designated Unionists took only 40 out of a possible 90 seats. Sinn Féin, the largest nationalist party, ended up only 1,168 votes and one seat behind the DUP. This has lead the northern Irish papers, with one prominent pundit likening it to “the fall of Stormont’s Berlin Wall.” How did we get to here, only ten months after an assembly election that delivered the unionist parties a slim but workable majority?

From Foster’s scandal to campaign trail.

The proximate cause was a little-known green energy scheme launched in 2012 by the Department of Trade and Industry in the NI executive, then under the control of the DUP’s Arlene Foster.

The scheme was copied from a British counterpart aiming to financially incentivise renewable energy, particularly biomass boilers. Only the NI scheme did not include a price cap, meaning participants could earn arbitrarily large sums by burning more and more fuel. At best monumentally incompetent, at worst corrupt – many close relatives of DUP politicians and special advisors are heavily involved in the scheme – the whole fiasco could cost the taxpayer £1bn over the next 20 years. By the time the mismanagement came to light the responsible minister, Arlene Foster, was now leader of the DUP and first minister of Northern Ireland.

Determined to back its relatively new leader, the DUP dug its heels in, refusing an independent inquiry and ignoring calls for Arlene Foster to stand aside while the debacle was dealt with. In the end, Sinn Féin decided it had to force an election and a visibly ill Martin McGuinness announced he would resign from the joint office of first and deputy first minister, without which the executive cannot function.

The gamble worked. A new leader of northern Sinn Féin, Michelle O’Neil, led an energised nationalist electorate to the polls. Turnout jumped 10% between May 2016 and this election, with just over 100k extra ballots being cast, of which 57,460 were additional Sinn Féin votes. Nationalist turnout has been declining for the past decade, with increasing disillusionment about what power-sharing could deliver. Anger at DUP corruption was clearly a factor but so was a broader sense of DUP arrogance and intransigence. Nationalists feel that the DUP has no interest in sharing power or even acknowledging the validity of nationalists’ concerns or experiences. This plays out in big issues like the DUP’s resistance to any inquiries into abuses committed by the army and police during the Troubles, right down to the symbols allowed in public spaces, where the DUP has objected to the display of Happy Christmas signs written in the Irish language.

For many, the DUP’s ignorant attitude towards the Irish language crystallises the wider problem. The DUP is adamant it will not countenance an Irish language act that would put language rights on a statutory basis the way they are in the south of Ireland or Welsh speakers’ rights are protected in Wales. When asked at an election launch whether she would consider such an act in the future, Arlene Foster replied in the negative, saying: “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more.” Such vicious objection to an apparently mundane demand was the final straw for many nationalists and has led to an unusually large number of croc sightings on the campaign trail. Above all of this looms the spectre of Brexit, seen by many nationalists as a further attempt to separate northern Ireland from the rest of the island. The high nationalist turnout is also an attempt to ensure that their rejection of a return to a hard border in Ireland cannot be ignored.

The number of MLAs was reduced from 108 to 90 since the last election, so each party’s strategy on the ground was about minimising seat losses. An invigorated nationalist electorate and the bad taste of the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scandal meant that, of the 18 missing seats, 16 came at the expense of unionist parties (10 DUP, 6 UUP), one from Sinn Féin and one from People Before Profit.

The other party that will be happy coming out of this election is the centrist Alliance party which, even in the smaller chamber, will hold its eight seats and added 2.1 percentage points to its vote share. Traditionally the home of the bien pensant middle class, Alliance may have feared that its control of the political centre (the party does not designate as unionist or nationalist) would be threatened by the UUP and the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP). Historically the dominant political formations of unionism and nationalism – the UUP governed a gerrymandered and deeply sectarian Northern Ireland state single-handedly from 1921 until the Stormont parliament was prorogued in 1972 following the outbreak of the troubles – their vote share has slid in recent years as they search for a political raison d’etre.

Under the new leaderships of Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood respectively, the UUP and SDLP thought they had it sussed. Leaving the power-sharing executive to create the assembly’s first ‘opposition’, they offered themselves not quite as a joint ticket, but as an alternative power-sharing regime; vaguely nicer and friendlier than the DUP/SF duopoly, a vote for parties who “would be willing partners” as Mike Nesbitt said in the final televised leaders’ debate.

The public didn’t buy it. Neither wannabe leader offered concrete suggestions for new compromises they would be willing to make in a putative UUP/SDLP executive and the electorate saw that both were just as divided on Brexit and the legacy of the Troubles as the two big parties. The SDLP rode the increase in nationalist turnout, keeping all 12 of its seats but still recording the lowest vote share in the party’s history. The UUP had the worst of it, dropping from 16 seats to ten. A clearly demoralised Mike Nesbitt refused to speak to the press throughout the count, offering his resignation once the size of the rout became clear and making him the first, but perhaps not the last, leader to go after these results.

The fruits of Lexit.

One of the talking points of the 2016 election was the arrival of two Trotskyist MLAs from People Before Profit (PBP). The party is represented in the Daíl, the Republic of Ireland parliament, but this was the first time far-left MLAs had been elected at Stormont since the return of devolution. The veteran socialist campaigner Eamonn McCann was elected in Derry in May 2016, his first electoral victory in a career dating back to his first candidacy back in February 1969, and his younger colleague Gerry Carroll topped the poll in west Belfast.

The fate of PBP this time out is probably the most high-profile outworkings of Lexit to date. The party campaigned for a Leave vote in the EU referendum because the EU “does not operate in the interests of working people anywhere.” This seems to have hurt the alliance badly in its core electoral areas, which tend to be traditionally nationalist working class and strongly against Northern Ireland leaving the EU. PBP defines as neither nationalist nor unionist but its attempts to stay (as the party sees it) neutral, may also have hurt it among existing supporters. PBP took a lot of flak from nationalist communities for abstaining on a vote to appoint a NI representative to the UK armed forces covenant reference group.

McCann has returned to the extra-parliamentary left after only ten months, while Carroll was re-elected but with his share of first preference votes halved since 2016. There clearly remains an appetite for socialist policies and candidates but the left in the north cannot avoid questions of self-determination, borders, national identity and international solidarity that impact so much of day to day politics.

Next steps.

What happens next depends a lot on how a shell-shocked DUP responds to its electoral drubbing. If the party ditches Arlene Foster and seeks to enter focused, meaningful talks with Sinn Féin then a new assembly could be up and running relatively soon. This could put the RHI scandal to bed and get the DUP back into government where it can begin to rebuild the trust of the unionist electorate.

That would require a willingness to meaningfully share power that the DUP has never displayed in abundance. If a new executive is not formed within three weeks, the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Theresa May protégé James Brokenshire, is obliged to call another election. In practice this timeline could be allowed to slide if talks are progressing or an election looks unhelpful. The DUP might see another election as just what it needs. After a number of financial scandals – of which RHI is only the latest – the DUP’s 1.1% drop in vote share is not as bad as it might have feared. Dire warnings of Gerry Adams stalking the land clearly helped shore up the DUP’s base and what better lesson of the dangers of unionist complacency than this election result? Add in a weakened and disorientated UUP, ready to be gobbled up, and another snap election could look very tempting to DUP strategists.

On the other side, Sinn Féin is clearly riding high after this election and will seek to avoid another ballot in the near future. This does not mean the party will rush back into the executive, however. Republicans will want to deliver breakthroughs on issues including the Irish language, inquiries into historic violence and the RHI inquiry.

Traditionally, major concessions have been won through multi-party negotiations chaired by the British and Irish governments, with the involvement of US administrations and the EU, rather than around the NI executive table. One big problem here is the extent to which the British secretary of state, Brokenshire, has alienated the nationalist community through his explicitly pro-unionist bias. This is partly driven by the need for DUP votes to shore up a slim Conservative majority in Westminster, but is also a loyal acolyte echoing the unionist rhetoric of both his current boss, May, and her predecessor David Cameron.

The explicitly pro-unionist turn of the British Conservative party since 2010, powered by the threat of Scottish independence but blithely applied to the Irish context as well, is a deeply troubling and under-discussed element of the current dynamic. Nationalists would like British Tory bias to be at least partially balanced by deeply engaged involvement of southern Irish ministers in any negotiations. Indeed, in the event of the assembly being suspended for some extended period, the SDLP has called for not for a return to direct rule from Westminster but for joint authority to be exercised by London and Dublin together. This is extremely unlikely as the Fine Gael minority government, and the southern political establishment generally, is loathe to do anything that might aid Sinn Féin while it is challenging for power in the south and reaching historic highs in opinion polls.

A step towards marriage equality?

If an assembly and working executive get up and running, the new balance of power will bring with it another crucial difference. The standing orders of the assembly include provision for a bill to be blocked by the deployment of a ‘petition of concern’. 30 or more MLAs, from either the nationalist or unionist-designated blocs, can sign such a petition, killing the relevant bill even if it enjoys support of a majority in the assembly.

This was designed to ensure that the sectarian policies so inherent to the old, pre-Troubles Stormont could not return against the will of the minority community. In the last assembly the DUP had enough MLAs to deploy the petition of concern mechanism alone, without reference to other parties. The DUP began to use it regularly, blocking any bills it didn’t like, including the extension of marriage equality to northern Ireland and any uncomfortable inquiries into alleged DUP financial corruption. With the party’s precipitous drop in the seat numbers, the DUP will not be able to pull the same tricks in the new assembly. While far from a done deal, marriage equality in Northern Ireland, long a priority for Sinn Féin, may be a lot closer than it was before the election.


Brexit looms over the Irish political landscape even more so than the British. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU by 56%. If it is wrenched out regardless because of the overall UK result, it could mean a return to a hard land border in the middle of the island complete with border posts and customs checks. On top of this, the south will face tariff barriers with its predominant export market.

For northern nationalists in particular the EU offered a kind of safety blanket and, in the European Court of Human Rights, a court that offered some hope of appeal against British state violence and torture. It was the knowledge that both Britain and Ireland, north and south, shared membership of a wider transnational entity, and the hope that the EU project would lead to a diminishment of all national borders, which went a long way towards giving nationalists and republicans the confidence to commit to power-sharing within Northern Ireland in 1998 and sign up to the principle of consent: that the future status of northern Ireland would be decided solely by the will of the people living there. Brexit rides roughshod over that principle as the people of Northern Ireland are removed, against their express wishes, from the EU they value deeply.

A border poll seems unlikely.

The end of the unionist majority at Stormont is important and the resurgence of nationalist political engagement, particularly under the threat of Brexit, may shape the future direction of Northern Irish politics – but we must not run away with ourselves. For all the talk of border polls and the breakup of the UK, nationalist parties still only won 39.4% of the vote at this election.

Concentration of the nationalist vote into two large parties means it tends to gain slightly more than its proportional share of seats, while the unionist vote is split between a larger number of small parties and independents, giving it a slightly smaller proportion of seats than its share of the first preference votes.

The nationalist community makes up a sizable proportion of northern Irish society but a border poll is in the gift of the secretary of state (they are obliged to call one once “it appears likely that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom”) and it seems unlikely that this will happen under Theresa May’s government. If a border poll were to happen it is far from clear that a combined pro-United Ireland vote would be strong enough to win.

Whether or not a border poll is called, the nationalist community is awake and cannot be ignored: it is determinedly anti-Brexit (of course there are anti-Brexit unionists as well); wants a substantive increase in cross-border cooperation and governance with unification as the final goal; and demands that the history of anti-Catholic oppression and the civil rights movement, the Irish language, gaelic games and an Irish cultural identity generally, be recognised and cherished as part of the fabric of Northern Ireland.

Decision time for the ‘ambivalent middle class’.

Northern Ireland is entering a phase where neither traditional unionist nor nationalist blocs will constitute a workable majority. As socialist activist and ex-PIRA paramilitary Tommy McKearney put it: the ambivalent middle class hold the balance of power. These are the people who find political expression in the Alliance and Green parties. In the new assembly Alliance can combine with either the unionist or nationalist groupings to form a parliamentary majority. How it chooses to fall on questions of taxation and spending, social justice and equality, the fallout of Brexit, the Troubles legacy and ultimately the constitutional fate of Northern Ireland, will have a huge impact on politics in the years to come.

It is no longer tenable to sit on the fence and be ‘all things to all men’. Socialists and everyone committed to building a future based on justice and equality should demand that these parliamentary centrists, now thrust into the limelight like never before, give up a facile triangulation between the major parties in search of ‘cross community’ votes and instead take every issue from social welfare to equal marriage to a new border, on its own merits. If this happens then the true divide in northern Irish politics will become apparent: those who want to build a fairer future and those who do not.

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