This article, written by New Zealand academic, Dr Stuart Jean Bramhall is, to my mind, the most sensible and accurate analysis of the recent council elections in Northern Ireland. While much, if not most of the media analysis of the recent poll has viewed the result as a triumph for Sinn Fein, bringing in its wake predictions of a Border poll and a vote for a united Ireland, Dr Bramhall’s sober analysis concludes that the real message from the vote is that the Alliance party was the reall winner now holds the balance of power in N.I. Politics.
To remind my readers, Alliance is essentially a party formed in the wake of the fall of the old Stormont set up and was inspired by the Unionism of Captain Terence O’Neill, a moderate figure who sought, somewhat unconvincingly, to persuade moderates on both sides of the political divide to come together to prevent the disaster that ultimately was visited on N.I.
While much, if not most of the Irish media, have concluded that the election was a triumph for Sinn Fein, with all the obvious political consequences, Dr Bramhall’s convincing argument is that it is Alliance which has emerged as the party which holds the future of Northern Ireland in its hands.
I am left with one question though. Why has it taken an obscure antipodean academic, half way across the world, to see something unnoticed by much if not most of the Irish media and political leadership? Anyway, with thanks to RW for the tip off, here is her article:
The local elections – another step to a united Ireland?
The local election results in the North of Ireland have given rise to more commentary that another step has been taken towards a referendum on Irish unity and a united Ireland. The success of Sinn Fein in becoming the largest party at local government level in council seats and votes has provoked this reaction, as have its previous victories. The two have almost come to seem synonymous.
At the same time the two are repeatedly separated by the selfsame commentators who argue that any vote for a united Ireland in a referendum would have to go way beyond Sinn Fein’s support. If a vote for this party is an indicator of impending unity, then there is an obvious problem. Its vote in the local elections was 30.9 percent of the ballot so even after an increase in its support of 7.7 percent it is not yet a third of those voting.
It is argued that other pro-unity candidates add to the forward movement of Irish nationalism, except that the other major nationalist party, the SDLP, is slowly dying. Its vote fell by 3.3 percentage points to 8.7 per cent. Together the two major nationalist parties gathered 39.7 per cent. Even with the addition of the pro-unity parties on the left and right, People before Profit and Aontú, the total rises only to 41.5 per cent. The total for the three main unionist parties is 38.1 per cent; Irish nationalism gained more votes than the these parties.
In the 2019 local government election the three Unionist parties plus smaller unionists gained 41.87 per cent of the vote while the comparable Irish nationalist and pro-unity parties won 37.73 per cent. At this election the DUP was the largest party and the Unionist vote was higher than that of Irish nationalism.
Local elections, however, are the least accurate electoral indicator of the relative strengths of the two camps; the turnout in 2023 was only 54 per cent, an increase of 2 per cent on the 2019 vote. Commentators have noted that the turnout in 2023 was higher in predominantly nationalist than unionist areas by as much as 10 percentage points in some places. Irish nationalism therefore won only 22 per cent of the electorate while many unionist voters stayed at home. During any referendum on a united Ireland it can hardly be expected that unionists will be so apathetic or demoralised, unless political circumstances make them so, unlikely to be a result of the vote itself.
In the 2022 Assembly elections, where the turnout was almost 63.6 per cent, the vote for the three Unionist parties was 40.1 per cent while the pro-Irish unity vote comparable to the most recent local elections was 40.7 per cent. The recent local election results are not the first time the Unionist parties have fallen behind.
Twelve years ago in the 2011 Assembly elections, Unionism polled 47.65 per cent while Irish nationalism trailed behind at 42.81 per cent. The decline in the Unionist vote over these years is therefore clear and it is this decline that has provided most of the impetus to claims that a nationalist referendum victory is a realistic prospect in the short to medium term. The 2011 result however also reveals what the advance of Sinn Fein has hidden – that the nationalist share of the vote hasn’t increased: 42.81 per cent in 2011 and 41.5 per cent in 2023.
The missing piece of the jigsaw is the rise of the Alliance party: from 7.84 per cent in 2011 to 13.3 per cent in the recent local election. The question then becomes the political nature of this party – unionist with a ‘small u’ or nationalist; or what it presents itself as – simply ‘other’.
So let’s start with the third alternative–that Alliance cannot be said to have a position on the national question. Even if this were so the national question will face Alliance and its supporters with the choice sooner or later and ‘other’ will not be on the ballot paper.
Alliance is definitely not an Irish nationalist party, does not pretend to be or pretend to hide it, and while it has a significant Catholic support, this has consciously decided not to vote for Irish nationalism. While it may be more likely than other Alliance supporters to vote for unity in a referendum, its existing vote is for the status quo and the status quo is continued British rule.
The party was originally set up as an openly unionist party that presented itself as non-sectarian; one that divorced its unionism from any religious identity. It has moved from this to present itself as neither Unionist nor nationalist but with a soft, ‘small u’, unionist support that is repelled by the sectarianism of the Unionist mainstream, with many also rejecting Brexit. In a referendum, all other things being equal, the majority of Alliance voters can be expected to support continued British rule, as will the party itself.
The ’other things being equal’ is what will matter for many; the political circumstances will at some point be decisive. These include the reality of what a united Ireland might offer and the configuration of the forces fighting for and against it. This includes the approach of the British state and the extent of violent unionist opposition. What the election results demonstrate is that this point is not yet near, whatever about Sinn Fein becoming the largest party and Irish nationalism garnering more votes than ‘big U’ Unionism. This does not mean that nothing is really changing.
Unionism continues to decline. Its support for Brexit and rejection of the deal negotiated by the British state with the EU indicates a political movement fighting against its own interests. These are still considered to include a sectarian supremacy that is no longer possible and opposition to economic forces that might make the Northern State more attractive, even while it strengthens the all-island character of potential economic prosperity. No longer able to make its claims on the basis that it is the majority within the gerrymandered state, it simply declares its veto based on its own existence. This existence has always been one of sectarian privilege.
The other significant change has been within Irish republicanism, which having ditched its armed struggle against British rule has found itself with no clothes it cannot discard. From opposition to British imperialism it now stands foursquare behind the western imperialist proxy war in Ukraine. Its representatives have acclaimed its recent success as a result of its brilliant electoral campaign. This put a united Ireland on the back-burner but purposively elevated its attendance at the British king’s coronation, ‘to show their respect’.
It seems not to occur to them that monarchy is the epitome of denial of democracy and deserves zero respect. When Celtic and Liverpool football fans demonstrate a higher level of awareness of very basic democratic and republican principles we can appreciate the level to which Sinn Fein has sunk (with all due respect to those fans).
You must be logged in to post a comment.