After decades ignoring it, the past three years has put the British establishment in the unusual position of having to actually think about Northern Ireland. Borders and backstops have frustrated Conservative party efforts to ‘get Brexit done’. On one side, a hard land border in Ireland (opposed by Dublin, the EU, and the US Congress). On the other, a ‘backstop’ and a ‘sea’ border between the North and Britain (opposed by the DUP, who resist any divergence within the union).
It was Theresa May’s disastrous 2017 election, a result that forced the Tories into a ‘confidence and supply agreement’ with the 10 MPs of the Democratic Unionist party, that compounded this. In the days following, many journalists and civil servants in London frantically googled ‘what is Northern Ireland?’ and ‘who are the DUP?’.
Despite the fact that they represent a only minority viewpoint, their role in Westminster coupled with the collapse of the devolved government in Belfast has meant that the DUP has been in effect the sole voice of Northern Irish voters. This spotlight on the party and on Northern Ireland in general led to some unlikely consequences, including the resolution of some long standing human rights issues here.
Two in particular - the lack of equal marriage and of abortion rights - took centre stage. The DUP have long played a major role in blocking local efforts for reform, despite support for change on these issues from a majority of voters. Their new relationship with the Tories created a moment in which equality campaigners could leverage oppositions MPs - chiefly Conor McGinn and Stella Creasy of the Labour party - to successfully introduce measures to extend abortion and marriage rights.
There has been widespread feeling among Northern Irish voters that the pro-brexit DUP is doing a poor job of representing them at Westminster.
Brexit is opposed by many in Northern Ireland, where a 56% voted to ‘remain’ and the DUP was the only major party to campaign to leave. In the years since then, support for ‘remain’ has grown (standing at 69% in early 2018). Much of this aversion to Brexit comes from a desire to avert the reintroduction of a hard land border on the island, but also the predicted economic hardship and the reliance on important farming subsidies and peace-building initiatives funded by the EU.
Parties in the North attempted to capitalise on this local discontent when Boris Johnson called this winter election to free himself from the constraints of his small majority, the DUP and Tory rebels. Several parties saw a chance to unseat the DUP and formed a ‘Remain Alliance’ in some key marginals.
Ultimately DUP vote fell by 5.4% overall, losing two MPs and failing to win another seat.
For the first time since its founding almost 100 years ago, Northern Ireland will not return a majority of unionist MPs to Westminster. Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital city, has gone from having only one non-unionist MP in the last election to only one unionist MP now.
Losses included Nigel Dodds, leader of the party at Westminster, to John Finucane, the son of a prominent lawyer killed by loyalist paramilitaries 30 years ago in one of the Troubles’ most shocking examples of collusion.
North Belfast, Dodds’ seat since 2001 and held by unionist MPs since its creation, was one of the closest watched battles in this election. More people were killed there than any other place during the Troubles. As is common with areas that experience high levels of violence during the conflict, it has not seen a ‘peace dividend’ and today contains many of the poorest wards in Northern Ireland. This lack of investment manifests in poverty, poor mental health and homelessness.
Belfast North has historically had a narrow unionist majority, which has been gradually decreasing over time. For much of his time in office, Dodds main challenger had been Gerry Kelly, a member of the devolved government and ex-member of the IRA. Finucane - in step with current era of party leaders - does not share this past. But this did not prevent banners emerging in North Belfast falsely claiming he and his family were ‘seeped in the blood of our innocents’. Some were removed by city council workers, under police protection.
With the SDLP - nationalism’s second party - and the Greens stepping aside, Finucane won the seat by almost 2,000 votes.
The DUP suffered losses elsewhere in the city, where the SDLP’s Claire Hanna took South Belfast back off the DUP. There it was the turn of Sinn Féin (and the Greens) to stand aside. The DUP held East Belfast, but faced a serious challenge from the cross-community Alliance leader Naomi Long.
Long’s near win was part of a larger trend of an increase in support to candidates from smaller parties. While to no one's surprise Sinn Féin comfortably kept West Belfast, they faced lower turnout and lost 7,000 votes - many to the socialist Gerry Carroll. In Foyle, they lost the seat to SDLP leader Colum Eastwood. Elsewhere, they held Fermanagh and South Tyrone by a mere 57 votes. While the party will return the same number of MPs overall, like the DUP their overall vote decreased significantly.
One of the greatest surprises was in North Down. Long held by Sylvia Herman - a pro-remain, independent unionist MP who did not stand this election - the DUP expected to move from second place to first. While Alliance missed out on East Belfast, their candidate took the seat with a large majority (as with Finucane, and Hanna in South Belfast, they faced a defamatory poster campaigning - here falsely linking Alliance to the IRA).
Elsewhere, all stayed the same - but the drop in DUP support was notable, even in safe seats. Ian Paisley Jr - whose father started the party and who spent much of last year dealing with controversies where he was temporarily suspended from parliament - was re-elected but saw a massive drop in his majority.
On election night, the DUP chalked their Belfast losses up to a ‘pan-nationalist alliance’. This ignores factors such as the non-aligned Green Party standing aside, nor the fact that the UUP - unionism’s second party - succumbed to immense pressure not to field a candidate in North Belfast. This included an open letter from high profile unionists, including UUP members, and separate paramilitary threats on their office. Moreover, such ‘pan-nationalist’ rhetoric shows a party not willing to take account for its own failings.
In the end, it was for nothing. On election night, Boris Johnson secured a huge majority - ending all debates and calculations about hung parliaments. After a roller-coaster two-years, the DUP are out of the Westminster spotlight.
This result means that the British establishment can revert back to their normal approach to Northern Ireland for much of the past twenty years - ignoring it.
The DUP, losing its role as kingmaker in Westminster, will seek to re-establish power where they can. The party lacked incentive to make concessions to get Stormont up and running again, considering the role they wielded in Westminster. That is over.
Despite their drop in support, Sinn Féin claimed the result was further evidence of a need for a border poll on the reunification of Ireland. They too have renewed interest to get Stormont to resume functioning.
Scheduled talks resumed earlier this week. If successful, Stormont has a mammoth task ahead of it.
Issues facing Northern Ireland include: the more than 90,000 children living in poverty; rates of long term unemployment being more than twice those of the UK as a whole; Catholic household applicants for social housing experiencing the longest waiting times; health inequalities experienced by Travellers; the homes of minority ethnic, migrant, and LGBT+ people being be vulnerable to racial attacks; and the disparity in rates of ill mental health and lack of funding.
As the Belfast-based Participation and Practice of Rights group has pointed out, “The full impact of austerity measures — including public spending cuts of £1.5billion by 2020, with 20,000 public sector job cuts forecast — have still to be felt, but given Northern Ireland’s disproportionately large public sector is likely to be severe.”
The health service here is under particular strain, with the longest hospital waiting times in the United Kingdom. Thousands of NHS workers are taking unprecedented strike action.
Northern Ireland has tried to mitigate the worst impacts of ‘welfare reform’, through providing access to welfare funds for emergency hardship. These mitigations are set to end in March 2020, and experts have warned that Northern Ireland faces a ‘cliff edge’ scenario if action is not taken soon.
A major report from the United Nations noted that the lack of devolved assembly here limits attempts to mitigate the worst of austerity and welfare reform. However, other devolved assemblies (such as Scotland) are also being overwhelmed by the brunt of London’s policies, despite some important efforts. It is far from certain that a functioning assembly would be the saviour that many hope it to be.
And this is before the impact of Brexit and the incoming Conservative government is taken into consideration.
If talks are not successful by mid-January, new elections will be called. They will be the third since 2017, and in addition to the various General, European, and council elections that people have endured.
As abstentionists, Sinn Féin have long held that ‘the interests of the Irish people can only be served by democratic institutions on the island of Ireland’. While for now that means Stormont, they have their eyes on the long game - the reunification of Ireland. Members of the party renewed calls for a border poll after last week’s result.
And as is increasingly the case, Sinn Féin were not alone in predicting a looming united Ireland. On election night, what would have once been unusual voices made similar predications. Alliance party leader Naomi Long, who has repeatedly warned a border poll in the Brexit climate would be ‘reckless’, said on election night that a hard or no deal Brexit by Johnson would mean ‘it is almost inevitable that there will be a push for an Irish unity referendum’. Former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said support for Brexit had been a major ‘own goal’ for unionists, which may lead to the break up of the UK.
Support for a united Ireland has grown considerably since the 2016 Brexit referendum. Polls show that a majority of voters in the North and South of Ireland now support reunification.
But in the North that support is not evenly split. While for some liberal unionists reunification is a way out of the Brexit mess and back into the EU, the vast majority of unionists oppose a united Ireland.
During the election unionists held a ‘Rally for Union’, warning that Johnson’s Brexit deal would cut off Northern Ireland from Britain and result in an ‘economic united Ireland’. They had called for a maximum number of unionist MPs to be returned to resist Johnson’s ‘betrayal act’.
The head of PSNI Simon Byrne has warned earlier this year of ‘the potential for civil disorder’, if Brexit ‘impacts the union’. And Brexit looks to do just that.
English nationalism is on the rise. Johnson is now rushing his deal through parliament with the aim to get Britain out by his 31st January deadline. In Scotland, a landslide for the SNP - who instantly called for a second independence referendum. The union appears to be increasingly pulling itself in different directions.
For Ireland, the line from dissatisfaction with a hard Brexit to a united Ireland is by no means a straightforward one. Yet one thing is clear: the election results means that there is a renewed impetus for a return for decisions affecting Northern Ireland to be made on the island.
Luke Butterly is an Irish writer living in London. His work focuses on the politics of immigration in Ireland and Britain.