Making social science accessible

18 May 2022

Devolution and the Union

The Northern Ireland Assembly election results were widely reported as a victory for Sinn Féin. The party is now the largest in the Assembly and its leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, is the First Minister-in-waiting. Sinn Féin’s success was the most dramatic result of the 2022 election. The most substantive shift however was the surge in support for the middle-ground Alliance party which saw its first preference vote increase from 9% to 13.5% and its Assembly representation grow from 8 to 17 of the 90 seats.

The most politically important outcome of the election however was neither of these two developments but their combined impact. Together they consolidated the robust non-Unionist majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly that first emerged in 2017.

Two alternative visions of transformation have long dominated the imaginary of Northern Irish politics: that Nationalists would eventually outnumber Unionists and vote the North into a united Ireland or that the ‘orange-green’ divide between Nationalists and Unionists would give way to ‘normal’ left-right politics and the constitutional issue would fade away. Neither vision gave sufficient attention to a third and much more likely scenario, that a non-Unionist majority of Nationalists and ‘others’ – the parties identified as neither Unionist or Nationalist – would combine in a politically meaningful, if loose, coalition as has happened in recent years.

As recently as 2017 Unionists held a majority of the seats in the Assembly, as they had done in every parliament or assembly since Northern Ireland was first established in 1920. In the 2017 election they dropped abruptly to 40 of the 90 seats and have now dropped further, to 37 seats, with little prospect that they will ever again secure a majority. Non-Unionist parties, which cooperate on a wide range of issues, including sensitive and divisive issues, now enjoy a clear and perhaps unassailable majority in the Assembly.

The 1998 Agreement moved Northern Ireland beyond majoritarianism. All parties in the Assembly that cross a certain threshold are guaranteed positions in government. But majorities remain important. Most votes in the Assembly continue to be decided by simple majorities and in the years before Unionists lost their majority they repeatedly voted down proposals on issues such as marriage equality that were supported by all non-Unionist parties. Now it is Unionists who are assured of defeat on any vote in which non-Unionist parties combine, as is likely to happen in the Assembly vote in 2024 on the Northern Ireland Protocol that keeps Northern Ireland in the EU Single Market and Customs Union (de facto) in order to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

This new era in Northern politics is of more than merely domestic importance. It has implications for relations between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain and, by extension, between the UK and the EU. This is because a clear majority in Northern Ireland and in the Assembly favours stronger and closer links with the Republic of Ireland and, by extension the European Union, if such links are of benefit to the North.

A majority in Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU in 2016 and non-Unionist parties have coalesced in recent years around demands for a soft Brexit, the avoidance of a hard border in Ireland and the maintenance of close ties with the European Union. As negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement got underway Nationalist and ‘other’ parties cooperated closely and publicly. They took part in forums on Brexit organised by the Irish government in Dublin that were boycotted by both the DUP and UUP and they sent a high-profile delegation to Brussels to put their joint position to EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier, emphasising that they represented a majority in the North.

The non-Unionist parties issued repeated joint statements on the issue and met in Dublin with Irish premier Leo Varadkar to support an Irish ‘backstop’ proposal. Rather than seeking a middle ground between Unionist and Nationalist positions on Brexit the ‘other’ parties – Alliance and the Green Party – aligned with Nationalist parties against the position adopted by Unionist parties. Because of this some Unionists accused, and continue to accuse, Alliance and the Greens of being part of a ‘pan-Nationalist front’.

These attacks did the Alliance party no damage. On the contrary, their stance on the EU increased their attractiveness to voters from a Nationalist background and to liberal, pro-Europeans from a Unionist background. The result was impressive growth in the Alliance vote not just in the 2022 Assembly election but in the Westminster and European elections that preceded them.

For the first time ever, a party with substantial Protestant support increased that support while working with Nationalists and the Irish government to ensure continued strong links between the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland.

Alliance emphatically does not have a shared position with Nationalists on constitutional issues, and there is no guarantee that they will always find themselves on the same side of the argument on issues surrounding Brexit. Nonetheless, their success is an indicator of the depth of the change associated with the transition to a non-Unionist majority in the Assembly.

There is still a pro-union majority in Northern Ireland. Opinion polls indicate that a clear majority would vote to stay in the United Kingdom in any referendum on Irish reunification. But there is also a non-Unionist majority that is supportive of close links with the Republic of Ireland.

The DUP’s argument that the Protocol should be scrapped because it does not enjoy Unionist consent raises the prospect that the party will seek to block any strengthening of relations between the two parts of Ireland on the same basis. If Unionist parties, led by the DUP, repeatedly adopt a blocking position in the coming years it may pay short-term dividends.

But in the long term it will imperil the union by widening the gap between the Unionist parties and all others, making the status quo in Northern Ireland ever less attractive to the middle ground and the new non-Unionist majority and potentially increasing support for Irish reunification.

By Niall Ó Dochartaigh, Personal Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway. His most recent book, Deniable Contact: Back-channel Negotiation in Northern Ireland, was published in 2021 by Oxford University Press.


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