Northern Ireland’s results might have longer-term ramifications for the province and the UK

by Kevin Meagher

We’ve heard about the Red Wall, the Blue Wall, Scotland and Wales throughout this election campaign, but not so much about Northern Ireland.

Easy to overlook perhaps, but there are 18 parliamentary seats up for grabs and on three occasions over the past 45 years unionists have held the balance of power at Westminster.

Granted, with a Labour landslide incoming we probably don’t need to worry too much about the prospect of Keir Starmer being propped-up by the DUP (although there was a strong possibility of that happening if the numbers had been slightly better for Gordon Brown in 2010).

Still, there are a few interesting twists and turns to watch out for and the result might well have big ramifications for the new government further down the road.

First, there’s the DUP.

Northern Ireland’s preeminent unionist party goes into the election holding eight seats in the House of Commons (one ahead of Sinn Fein). But it’s a record that’s unlikely to be matched this time around.

The latest poll has them 10 points down on their 2019 share of the vote. There is also the elephant in the room in the shape of their former leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who is facing 18 charges in relation to historical sexual offences.

The party’s interim leader, Gavin Robinson, is the current MP for East Belfast. He faces a stiff challenge from Alliance. Their candidate, Naomi Long, formerly held the seat beating the DUP’s then-leader, Peter Robinson, back in 2010. Is history going to repeat itself?

Like the Tories, the DUP faces a challenger to their right splitting their vote in the shape of Traditional Unionist Voice. An undiluted, full-fat Paisleyite rump that makes the DUP sound like the Liberal Democrats. They are part of an alliance with Reform UK, (although Nigel Farage has personally endorsed the DUP’s Ian Paisley and Sammy Wilson).

But the DUP’s real threat comes from the resurgent Ulster Unionists and Alliance.  Both parties may take seats from the DUP. A worst-case scenario has them losing half their current tally.

On the other side of the aisle, Sinn Fein will be hoping to emerge with the most seats, holding the seven they won in 2019. But there are a couple of potential wobbles here, too. First, they face a tough contest in Fermanagh and South Tyrone – the most marginal seat in the House of Commons, which Sinn Fein held in 2019 with a majority of just 57.

Their candidate, Pat Cullen, will be a familiar face as until recently she was general-secretary of the Royal College of Nursing. Its going to be close, with the Ulster Unionist, Diana Armstrong, in hot pursuit, although Cullen has an additional hurdle. Immediately above her on the ballot paper is an independent, also called Cullen. Upon such quirks of fate are tight electoral contests often determined.

Sinn Fein also needs to hold Belfast North, currently represented by John Finucane. His victory in 2019 over the DUP’s deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, was the result of the night, aided in part by the SDLP not fielding a candidate.

There is no love lost between Sinn Fein and the SDLP and this time around they are standing, potentially splitting the nationalist vote and making Finucane’s task harder.

For the SDLP’s leader, Colum Eastwood, these elections are make-or-break. Unlike Sinn Fein MPs, who abstain from taking up their seats, the SDLP contingent – Eastwood (Foyle) and his deputy, Claire Hanna (Belfast South) – do sit in the House of Commons. They need to hold what they have to remain relevant.

So, what are those ramifications that might cause British ministers a few headaches?

Well, if the DUP suffers a defeat, especially if they lose seats to Alliance and the UUP and bleed support to the TUV, it might see them go wobbly on the Windsor Framework deal they eventually bought into, straight before Donaldson’s fall. The devolved institutions won’t collapse – not yet at any rate – but it puts the delicate political settlement under renewed pressure.

If nationalist parties (Sinn Fein and the SDLP) win the most seats – especially if they accrue a bigger share of the vote than unionists, (unlikely in this election, but possible) then this will be seen as a staging post towards the referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status (a ‘border poll,’ in the vernacular) that is promised in the Good Friday Agreement.

Turnout, pacts and tactical voting will play a major part in the overall outcome. And notwithstanding the results, you can rest assured that Northern Ireland can be relied upon to generate enough problems to overfill the new Secretary of State’s in-tray.

Kevin Meagher is the associate editor of Labour Uncut

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