This is what The New York Times, in an article published today on the aftermath of last week’s UK general election, has to say about the meaning of the result for Northern Ireland:
The background in Northern Ireland is more complicated. But for the first time in its history, the territory elected more nationalist members of Parliament, who support reunification with the Republican of Ireland, than unionists, who wish to remain a part of the United Kingdom.
Though the situations are quite different in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the common thread is Brexit, a project supported by English and Welsh voters but opposed by majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
“Brexit has completely transformed the debate in Northern Ireland,” said Daniel Keohane, an Irish political analyst. “Before Brexit, no one seriously thought a united Ireland would happen anytime soon. Now it’s a very real prospect based on these results.”
In this regard the NYT proposition that between them, Brexit and the British general election have brought Irish unity a step closer, probably represents the media consensus on both sides of the Atlantic and within Ireland itself. But does it withstand closer scrutiny?
The first problem with this analysis is that notwithstanding the fact that between them the SDLP and Sinn Fein now hold half of the North’s eighteen Westminster seats (an increase of one from 2017’s result), in terms of reaching a majority of the entire electorate, the Nationalist bloc still has some way to go.
In fact the Nationalist share of the vote, combining the totals for SF, the SDLP and Aontu, actually declined last week, from 41.1 percent in 2017 to 38.9 per cent. That is a long way from meeting the conditions necessary for any British Secretary of State to call for a Border poll, much less for the cause of Irish unity to prevail.
The significant aspect of the Nationalist result was a drop of 6.7 per cent in the Sinn Fein vote, a performance that was starkly in contrast to the SDLP’s Lazarus-like comeback, with victories in Foyle, the crucible of the Troubles, for party leader Colum Eastwood, and in South Belfast for Claire Hanna, who robbed the DUP of a precious seat.
Overall the SDLP’s share of the vote increased by around a fifth from the 2017 poll, while Sinn Fein’s shrank by a quarter or so.
Eastwood’s emphatic trouncing of Sinn Fein in Derry did two things: it re-established the SDLP, the party of John Hume, as the dominant party in the city and reconfirmed what we all knew, that Derry is really a Nationalist town not a Republican one.
In that context it is not so far-fetched to believe that the late Martin McGuinness also knew that, and never stood for the larger Westminster seat in Derry for fear that some day, had he lived, he would have come to electoral grief.
Sinn Fein’s percentage losses were mirrored by those suffered by the DUP, which lost two seats and 5.2 per cent of its share of the total turnout, a reduction in excess of fifteen per cent from 2017.
And so we come to the really significant aspect of the result, the dramatic rise in the Alliance Party’s share of the vote, which more than doubled, from 7.1 per cent two years ago to 16.8 last week.
At this point, it is worth looking at the Alliance party’s roots to discover the real meaning of that performance.
If there was a spiritual founder of the Alliance party it was probably Captain Terence O’Neill, the ill-fated Unionist premier of Northern Ireland in the mid-1960’s, on the eve of the Troubles, who was undone by Paisleyism.
O’Neillism is often characterised by his paternalistic view of Catholics, summed by the phrase, ‘Give a Catholic a decent job and a decent house and he/she’ll behave like a decent Protestant’. Add on to that an emphasis on normalising relations south of the Border and you have a definition that could also fit Alliance.
Now before angry Alliance supporters reach for their pens, the essence of O’Neillism was to create a society in the North within which Protestants and Catholics, Unionists and Nationalists could live together in amity and fairness – and that is what Alliance would say it represents also. So the O’Neill analogy is a fair one.
The other party which comes closest on the Nationalist side to sharing Alliance’s world view is the SDLP. Indeed as those of us with longer memories can recall, in the early days of the Troubles the party the SDLP feared most, and was most in competition with, was not the Provos but Alliance.
That was because they were competing in the same marketplace; both the SDLP and Alliance believe in power-sharing at Stormont, the Alliance because it is an end in itself and the SDLP because it is a necessary staging post en route to Irish unity.
In that regard both parties share a major difference with their rivals in the DUP and Sinn Fein, both of whom prefer to view Stormont as a cockpit in which their eternal battle can be continued.
So an election result which sees setbacks for the two parties least enthusiastic about power-sharing, and victories for the two parties most dedicated to internal harmony is a not a sign that a united Ireland is now a ‘very real prospect’ but more a demand for a deal at Stormont.