How Brexit became Northern Ireland’s second constitutional question

A new Remain pact shows anger at the DUP—and concern over Brexit's impact in Northern Ireland—has reached new heights

November 05, 2019
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds and DUP Leader Arlene Foster in Downing Street, London, after the Prime Minister after Brexit talks with Theresa May. Photo: PA
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds and DUP Leader Arlene Foster in Downing Street, London, after the Prime Minister after Brexit talks with Theresa May. Photo: PA

In Northern Ireland, election results can often seem like a foregone conclusion before the first pen strikes the first ballot paper. As the region’s constitutional status is highly contested, many people will vote purely based on the question of whether they support Northern Ireland remaining in the UK or joining a united Ireland. While many other political issues and spats may be raised over the course of an election campaign, when it comes down to the moment the voter reaches for the pen alone in the polling booth it is this which tends to prevail.

That appears, however, to be rapidly changing. As Northern Ireland’s parties crank into election mode ahead of the 12 December poll, a new approach to electioneering is being created in response to the urgent threat of Brexit and the unique risks it poses to the region.

Last week, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) announced that they would stand aside for each other in a number of key seats, in order to maximise the number of seats which could return a unionist MP. The parties have entered pacts previously in the two most recent Westminster elections, as the unionist vote throughout Northern Ireland has waned and the parties have sought to halt the increasing rise of Sinn Féin as a Westminster electoral force.

Therefore, when the parties announced that the UUP would not stand in North Belfast and the DUP would not stand in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, few were surprised. North Belfast is currently held by DUP MP Nigel Dodds, with Sinn Féin candidate John Finucane just under two thousand votes behind him.

Similarly, Fermanagh and South Tyrone is one of the UK’s most keenly-fought marginals, with Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew holding the seat with just 875 votes over the UUP’s Tom Elliott. Therefore, the pact among unionists was the most logical decision to maximise the number of seats they could share.

However, what the unionist parties did not expect was for an alternate pact to be set up in response. Unlike their unionist counterparts, nationalists have staunchly rejected the prospect of pacts. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a centre-left moderate nationalist party, has roundly rejected the pacts as sectarianism and reducing elections to an “orange and green headcount.”

The party made one exception to this policy, when in 1981 they did not stand against IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands who was elected as an MP while in prison. Aside from this, the SDLP has insisted on contesting all elections, arguing that Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy deprives constituents of a voice in Westminster.

Yesterday, however the SDLP took the unexpected step of announcing they will not contest seats in North Belfast, East Belfast or North Down in order to not split the Remain vote. Hours later, Sinn Féin followed suit with a similar announcement.

This benefits both parties by increasing the likelihood that they will take one seat each from the DUP: the SDLP’s Claire Hanna is poised to take South Belfast, while Sinn Féin’s John Finucane is on track to take North Belfast. It also increases the chances leader of the liberal and pro-Remain Alliance party Naomi Long could take East Belfast from DUP MP Gavin Robinson. In North Down, the independent unionist and pro-Remain MP Lady Hermon is battling off DUP attempts to target her seat and both parties standing aside will buoy her efforts.

The pact is a historic moment in Northern Ireland electoral politics which will have far-reaching consequences. It amounts to a tearing up of traditional tactics among the nationalist parties. The SDLP and Sinn Féin have argued that although the step is drastic, it is justified by the extreme threat of Brexit. The aftermath of the 2017 election has been deeply felt, and while the DUP have made many new friends in London, they have also antagonised many old enemies at home.

The DUP have used the position to advocate for a hard Brexit, in contrast to the overall vote in Northern Ireland for Remain in the 2016 referendum. They have engaged in hardline and often inflammatory rhetoric against the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. They have repeatedly and openly expressed that they will put Brexit above the interests of people working and living in Northern Ireland—despite potential risks to the peace process and economy. Although this has played well to their grassroots voters at home, it has enraged many nationalists. As such, anger towards the DUP within Northern Ireland is at a height not seen for many years.

Many moderate voters are now determined to see anyone but a DUP MP elected for their area and are willing to vote tactically to achieve this in a way Northern Ireland politics has never seen before.

As the nature of the pact is so unprecedented, it is hard to predict whether it will succeed. Its strength—or failure—will lie in Sinn Féin and the SDLP’s ability to convince their voters that punishing the DUP for their last two years in Westminster is not sectarian, but a legitimate response to the unprecedented threat of Brexit.

Given the strength of feeling among many moderate nationalists in response to Brexit over the last few years, it stands a considerable chance and should cause considerable concern for the DUP as they embark on the campaign trail.

Whatever happens, it is now impossible to ignore the fact that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU amounts to a fundamental re-writing of UK-Ireland relations and as such has taken on the status of a second constitution question—both connected to and yet distinct from the long-term issue of a united Ireland.