The balance of power among Northern Ireland’s MEPs has shifted—and it could have big consequences for Brexit

The move towards Remain candidates doesn't only show a shift from Northern Ireland's traditional constitutional voter split. It could also have big implications for the backstop

May 28, 2019
Alliance party leader and candidate Naomi Long's win shifts the balance of Northern Ireland's MEPs towards Remain. Photo: PA
Alliance party leader and candidate Naomi Long's win shifts the balance of Northern Ireland's MEPs towards Remain. Photo: PA

In keeping with the scant attention Northern Ireland received in the lead up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, the recent EU parliament election results have largely slipped by unnoticed in British political discourse. Yet the results could have a significant bearing on the future of viability of Brexit.

Northern Ireland is a single constituency for the EU, electing 3 MEPs. Traditionally, two of the three seats have been won by unionists while the other one tends to go to a nationalist.

Following the 2014 election, the three seats were won by Sinn Féin (pro-Remain), the DUP (pro-Brexit) and the UUP (who have a confusing and amorphous position on Brexit, having initially supported Remain half-heartedly but now engaging in pro-Brexit rhetoric).

This has meant the region has sent one pro-Remain and two largely pro-Brexit voices to Brussels throughout most of the Brexit process so far.

However, with this week’s results, the balance of power has shifted. This week two of the seats were returned comfortably to Sinn Féin and the DUP, as had been expected. But the UUP’s seat was emphatically lost as their vote share plummeted from just over 83,000 first preference votes to a mere 53,000.

Instead, the seat went to the cross-community Alliance party, whose leader Naomi Long saw their first preference votes soar from 44,000 in 2014 to almost 106,000.

Crucially, Long ran her campaign on a ticket that was passionately pro-Remain and staunchly in favour of the backstop. Among her core policies is a demand for a people’s vote or a second referendum.

Paired with Sinn Féin’s hardline anti-Brexit politics, the pro-EU voices for Northern Ireland in Brussels now outnumber the DUP by 2:1. This strengthens the EU’s ability to refuse to re-open any talks about the backstop, as they can cite this result as proof of local support in Northern Ireland in the event of the next British Prime Minister seeking to renegotiate it.

No Change, no Brexit party

It is also significant that neither the Brexit party nor Change UK decided to field candidates in the Northern Ireland constituency.

Considering much of the current Brexit impasse centres on passionate proclamations at Westminster that Northern Ireland cannot be treated differently to the rest of the UK as it is just as British as anywhere else on the ‘mainland,’ it is incongruous and perhaps somewhat baffling that those same parties decided not to field candidates in Northern Ireland.

A seat win or a strong showing for either party here would have strengthened their hand in asserting that they had the backing of the people of Northern Ireland in their respective policies.

Their failure to do so may have been due to the newer parties struggling with bureaucracy as they strove to set up their new groups quickly, and baulking at the additional red tape and regulations involved in Northern Ireland’s status as a post-conflict society as well as its complex Single Transferable Vote system.

However, perhaps more plausibly it may also have been a step of self-protection, as both parties would have been highly unlikely to cut through in the traditional political landscape and would have almost certainly performed poorly in the polls. By not contesting the election here, they have saved face—and can argue that their ideas are untested in Northern Ireland rather than having been roundly rejected there.

A shift from orange v green?

Further to the shift in Remain/Leave dynamic among Northern Ireland’s 3 MEPs, Long’s election also marks a historic shift within the region’s traditional community dynamics, too. Alliance are neutral on Northern Ireland’s constitutional question, designating not as ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’ under Stormont’s mandatory designation system but instead as ‘other’.

This is a rarity in Northern Ireland, where the constitutional question continues to dominate the political landscape, and as such, they have always been on the fringe of politics and currently rank as only the fifth largest party in the region.

However, the local elections earlier this month saw the party double its vote share and make serious gains throughout Northern Ireland, particularly in moderate unionist areas.

It seems that moderate unionists who are pro-EU are voting for Alliance, having been alienated by the hardline stances of both the UUP and DUP. In this way, Brexit has posited an additional constitutional question within Northern Ireland’s age-old one by fracturing it through an additional lens. People are increasingly identifying not only as British or Irish, but with further layers of complexity such as identifying now as British and European.

What comes next

This changes the simple but steadfast ‘orange v green’ dynamic that has been in place in Northern Ireland for generations. Subsequent elections will reveal whether this is a profound and long-lasting change—or a mere flash in the pan due to the extraordinary current circumstances of Brexit.

In the meantime, the dynamics of Northern Ireland’s MEPs has altered this week in a major way and the tilt towards pro-EU and pro-backstop voices should mark a considerable shift in thwarting further any future attempts by Britain to alter the backstop.