The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

22 May 2019

Devolution and the Union

The stage is set for an historic result in Northern Ireland European parliamentary elections this week.

According to polling by Lucid Talk and analysis by Slugger O’Toole, one of Northern Ireland’s three MEP seats is likely to be won by a ‘non-designated’ cross-community representative, Naomi Long of the Alliance Party. Unlike all previous Northern Irish MEPs, including the three incumbents, Ms. Long and her party do not identify as either Unionist or Nationalist, but rather sit as ‘non-designated’ or ‘others’ in Northern Ireland’s unique power-sharing institutions.

Whether or not events this week unfold as the pollsters predict, the fact this scenario is even a possibility could be indicative of a fundamental shift in the politics of Northern Ireland which would be of long-lasting and far-reaching consequence.

More particular circumstances

Much attention has been given to the ‘unique… challenge’ of Northern Ireland in the context of Brexit. Arrangements for the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland – the so-called ‘Irish Backstop’ – have proved the Achilles heel of Theresa May’s repeated attempts to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. But an all-encompassing focus on geography has at times allowed other aspects of Northern Ireland’s ‘particular circumstances’ to be overlooked. The importance of electoral shift is a good example.

Under the terms of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, if it appears that a majority of the population of Northern Ireland are in favour of leaving the UK and joining the Republic of Ireland, the Secretary of State will bring forward legislation to hold a referendum on Irish unity.

Throughout Brexit, the UK government have underlined their continued support for this ‘principle of consent’, as the cornerstone of the peace agreement that has shaped Northern Ireland’s development for the last 21 years. The consent principle lends exceptional  significance to any change in voters’ allegiance in the UK’s most problematic region.

Representative discrepancy

Since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 there has been a growing discrepancy between the number of Northern Irish political representatives who define themselves as Unionist or Nationalist and the percentage of the population who identify as either Unionist or Nationalist.

According to Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey data the number of people in Northern Ireland who identify as either Unionist or Nationalist has dropped from 65% (40% Unionist, 25% Nationalist) in 1998 to 53% (32% Unionist, 21% Nationalist) in 2017 just as the proportion of people who identify as neither Unionist nor Nationalist has grown from 33% in 1998 to 45% in 2017. Given this, the number of Northern Irish politicians who identify as Unionist or Nationalist has been consistently and disproportionately high.

(Source: Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey data 1998 – 2017 in response to ‘Do you think of yourself as a unionist, a nationalist or neither?’)

Prior to the referendum of 2016, 100% of Northern Irish MPs (following the 2015 the General Election), 100% of Northern Irish MEPs (following the 2014 European Parliament election), 89% of local councillors in Northern Ireland (following the 2014 local elections) and 87% of Northern Ireland Assembly’s MLAs (following the 2016 Assembly Election) identified themselves and represented parties defined as either Nationalist or Unionist. That meant that although 46% (2016) of the population do not identify as Nationalist or Unionist, a disproportionate majority of their political representatives did.

Until 2016, among ‘neither’ voters in Northern Ireland there seems to have been a kind of permissive consensus to the political and constitutional status quo. Brexit might be changing this.

A new trend? From local to European elections

At the recent local elections the Alliance Party and the Green Party received their highest ever percentage of first preference votes, gaining 11.5% (+4.8%) and 2.1% respectively (+1.2%). While these percentages may appear modest, this was an election in which the collective support for non-designated/other candidates reached an historic high of 19.6%.

According to the aforementioned poll the Nationalist/Unionist/Other breakdown in this week’s election is forecast to be similar to that of the recent local elections, with an estimated 17.4% of first preference votes going to non-designated candidates.

Under the distinctive Single Transferrable Vote system, it is predicted the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long will benefit from transfers from both Unionist and Nationalist candidates who fail to reach the required electoral quotas. If it occurs, success for the Alliance Party this week would constitute a substantial shift towards the centre in Northern Irish politics.

Table: % First Preference Vote Share in Northern Ireland European Parliament Elections

1) Unionist: DUP, UUP, UKIP, PUP, TUV, NI Conservatives, NI2

2) Nationalist: Sinn Féin, SDLP, SEA

3) Other: Green Party, Alliance, NLP
(Source: Northern Ireland Elections, ARK 2019 and Lucid Talk, 2019)

Triptych of implications for Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and Europe…

A possible immediate impact of electoral success for the Alliance Party would be an extra seat for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) grouping in the European Parliament and one less seat for the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (with whom incumbent Jim Nicholson previously sat). In what is expected to be the closest ever EP election the ALDE group are likely to play a significant role in a struggle to form a grand coalition; every single seat will count.

As Brexit rumbles on, conversations about constitutional futures in general and Northern Ireland’s in particular are back in vogue. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made clear her intention to pursue a second referendum on Scottish independence regardless of the Brexit outcome. This week the Prime Minister warned of the ‘unstoppable pressure’ to call a referendum on Irish Unity in the event of a no deal Brexit; a scenario that would be much more likely if Mrs. May is succeeded by a more eurosceptic member of the Conservative Party in the upcoming leadership contest.

In this context, regardless of the result of the European parliamentary elections, if support for Northern Irish political parties not defined by their stance on the constitutional question continues to grow, the ripple effect of the change may shape the future not just of Northern Ireland but the of UK as a whole.

By Lisa Whitten, a PhD researcher in Politics and Law at Queen’s University Belfast.


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