How Much Difference Could Northern Ireland Make in The UK General Election?

by Patrick Geddis

In theory, at least, it shouldn’t really matter to the rest of the UK who Northern Ireland elects on 12 December. With only 18 MPs out of 650 UK wide, and those divided between two or more vehemently opposed parties, it should be difficult for Northern Ireland to ever establish an effective voting bloc within the House of Commons – and that’s before Sinn Féin’s abstentionist MPs refuse to even attend.

However, as the deadlock of the last parliament demonstrated, even a small number of MPs can sometimes wield a great deal of influence in Westminster. The Conservatives were forced to rely on the support of just 10 DUP MPs to maintain a majority and the withdrawal of this support contributed to Theresa May’s resignation.

This election is probably going to be close polls are predicting a Conservative victory, but a surge in youth voter registration could upend these predictions. Given this, it’s feasible that what happens in a handful of Northern Irish constituencies could end up determining which party is able to form a government. 

Northern Irish politics is changing.

Much was made last Summer of a surge in support for the Alliance party, which is neither unionist nor nationalist. The surge saw party leader Naomi Long elected as an MEP and Alliance polling as Northern Ireland’s third most popular party. While support for the party may largely be due to Long’s own popularity, it does speak to a shift away from strictly sectarian politics.

This election is unlikely to see voters flat out reject the old style of politics; many races across Northern Ireland will still be decided by unionist versus nationalist loyalties (North Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone will be examples of this); while races such as South Antrim and Foyle will be decided by a choice between two unionists or two nationalists. However, across Northern Ireland, there increasingly seems to be a desire for political change. People are growing tired of political deadlock and of issues like Northern Ireland’s mental health crisis going unaddressed. Major systemic change isn’t going to come over night, but this election could see Northern Ireland take one more step away from sectarian politics.

Will the DUP lose seats?

While the DUP will likely remain the largest party in Northern Ireland, it will still see this election as a defeat if it loses seats. This would not only harm the DUP’s prestige going into a possible January-February Stormont election, but may also harm the DUP’s ability to prop up a Boris Johnson led government in the event of a hung parliament.

Arlene Foster’s party currently holds three of Belfast’s four constituencies but may end up losing all of them. The Alliance party is pushing for a win in East Belfast; while DUP Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds will likely struggle to hold off a challenge from Sinn Féin in North Belfast. The situation is bleaker for the party in South Belfast, where Emma Little-Pengelly, a well known DUP MP, looks set to be defeated by the SDLP’s Claire Hanna.

Outside of Belfast, the DUP may be able to gain a seat in North Down, previously held by the Independent MP Sylvia Hermon who is standing down. The DUP candidate, Alex Easton, came within 2,000 votes of Lady Hermon in 2017. However, Hermon was a fairly progressive unionist who provided the only Northern Irish opposition to a hard Brexit during the last parliament. Her supporters will probably line up more with the Ulster Unionists or else the Alliance party, who currently see Stephen Farry’s candidacy in that constituency as their best chance of gaining a seat.
Meanwhile in South Antrim, Danny Kinahan of the Ulster Unionist party is mounting an effective challenge to retake the seat he lost to the DUP in 2017.

All of this will probably leave the DUP with seven or eight seats, which will be enough for them to exert some influence at Westminster in the event of a hung parliament, but which will see their dominance again challenged within Northern Ireland. Importantly, the election of Alliance, UUP and SDLP MPs could pose a threat to the DUP’s claim to speak for all of Northern Ireland.

What about Sinn Féin?

Sinn Féin is pushing hard to win in North Belfast. However, the primary nationalist party is facing challenges west of the Bann river, in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and in Foyle. While Sinn Féin has been gaining on the DUP in recent years – with the party coming close to taking over as Northern Ireland’s largest party in the last assembly elections – the potential for politicians to make a real impact in Westminster may end up putting pressure on Sinn Féin’s abstentionist MPs.

In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the DUP has stood aside for the Ulster Unionists, as although the two unionist parties don’t see eye to eye, both would rather see a unionist returned than have Sinn Féin take the seat. It is for this reason that the Ulster Unionists have also stood down in North Belfast in the hope that it will let Nigel Dodds keep his seat. The UUP are fielding Tom Elliot, a former party leader who has held the seat before and who stands a realistic chance of winning.

Meanwhile in Foyle, the SDLP’s leader Colum Eastwood may end up winning back the seat once held by the iconic former SDLP leader John Hume.

In total seven seats are up for grabs in Northern Ireland and who wins in these areas may have a profound effect on our immediate political future.

If the smaller parties can prove to the electorate that they are offering a serious alternative, it may help to break the stranglehold the DUP and Sinn Féin currently have over the Stormont system.

What’s more, a diminished DUP would be less likely to be able to influence the government in Westminster, while the election of MPs from the Alliance Party, the SDLP or the UUP could see less hardline (and more widespread) Northern Irish viewpoints come to the fore in the UK media.

Patrick Geddis is a writer based in Northern Ireland and an ambassador for the Institute for Economics and Peace.

Published 2nd December 2019

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