General Election 2024

The millstone around your neck

Sinn Féin is now the largest party in the north of Ireland—in local government, in the Stormont assembly and in Westminster. 

July 11, 2024
Image: PA Images / Alamy. Sinn Fein leaders Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald celebrate as Cathal Mallaghan is elected MP for Mid Ulster on 5th July 2024.
Image: PA Images / Alamy. Sinn Fein leaders Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald celebrate as Cathal Mallaghan is elected MP for Mid Ulster on 5th July 2024.

Across all the opinion polls and in all the electoral maps published in Britain, forensically poured over by the pundits in television studios and newspapers, no one noticed. 

England, Scotland and Wales, the fortunes of Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Reform UK—all featured in the percentages and swings, but the little Six Counties of the north of Ireland wasn’t even conspicuous by its absence. We are always invisible. To the majority of people in Britain we don’t count—and I’m dandy about if the government lets us decide our own future and go our own way. As a feature in the Daily Telegraph said in 2019, “Northern Ireland is a burden on the rest of the UK. We can’t let it get in the way of Brexit ... Northern Ireland has long been a millstone round the neck of the rest of the UK and to fail to take back our independence because of it would be an historic tragedy.”

The ‘millstone’ that is the north of Ireland had voted to remain in the EU. But the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) wanted the most inflexible of Brexits, even a no-deal, with the aim of bringing back a hard border between the north and the south, with all the associated risks to the peace process, in order to physically and psychologically consolidate partition.

The DUP has yet to explain where it found £435,000 for its Metro ad campaign in England—where it has no constituency presence. It had propped up Theresa May’s government in 2017 with their ten MPs who had a 36 percent share of the vote here. Today they have five seats on 22.1%.

Despite the promises of May’s successor, Boris Johnson, to the DUP, the British government, under pressure from President Joe Biden, the EU and the Irish government, had to make several compromises with Brussels to avoid an economic war: the Protocol and the Windsor Framework. These kept the north aligned with EU regulations and resulted not in a border in Ireland but a trade border—a line down the Irish Sea—setting the north apart from Britain in terms of goods and standards.

The DUP furiously protested this own-goal by punishing the entire community and withdrawing from the Stormont power-sharing executive. But after two years this became increasingly unpopular, especially given the local economy being starved of funds by impersonal, direct rule from Whitehall. The DUP finally wrought only minor changes to the protocol, and oversold these fig leaves. The result was a backlash from the diehards—including former DUP member Jim Allister, leader of Traditional Unionist Voice party—who accused them of now implementing the ‘Union-dismantling Protocol’. (If you think you’ve just stumbled across a Sunday Sport story about UFOs flying over the Isle of Man towards Britannia, you have my sympathy.)

Almost every decision the DUP has taken in the last five years has exacerbated their situation. Last Thursday they lost Lagan Valley to the centre Alliance Party. Lagan Valley had been held by DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, for 27 years on an almost unassailable majority—until his arrest three months ago leading to him and his wife being charged with historic sex offences. The party’s current leader, Gavin Robinson, just managed to fend off a strong challenge in East Belfast from Naomi Long, Alliance leader.

But the most devastating blow to the DUP came completely unexpectedly in North Antrim. For fifty-four years the Paisley dynasty—first the father, then the son, Ian Paisley Jnr—held the seat since Paisley Snr displaced the North’s then Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill in 1970, thwarting the “sell-out O’Neill” introducing civil rights’ reforms. Ironically, the seat has been taken by Jim Allister to, now, thwart the “sell-out DUP”.

The comfortable winner in our Westminster election was Sinn Féin, which has seven MPs to the DUP’s five. That now makes Sinn Féin the largest party in the north of Ireland, in local government, in the Stormont assembly and in Westminster. Under the Good Friday Agreement there is a provision for a referendum on Irish unity should a (British) Secretary of State feel that a threshold in public opinion has been reached. However, the British government refuses to publish the exact criteria of what would define such a tipping point. Do consecutive elections, demographic changes, or successive opinion polls suffice?

The late John Hume’s much-reduced former party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, won two seats: South Belfast where Sinn Féin stood aside, and Foyle where party leader Colm Eastwood was down 11,234 votes from 2019, with Sinn Féin coming in second. In the neighbouring constituency of East Derry, held by unionists for over forty years, Sinn Féin came to within two hundred votes of dealing another body blow to the DUP and its longest-serving MP, Gregory Campbell.

All of the political parties criticised Sinn Féin for its manifesto pledge of abstaining from taking its seats in Westminster, a policy it has had since 1917. (Sinn Féin MPs thus waiver handsome Commons’ salaries.) But few, if any, of those parties, can point to gains resulting from their attendance. Writing in the last century, Paul Scott said: “Whenever an Indian question was tabled in the House of Commons the chamber emptied like a shot.” He could just as easily have been writing about British interest in the north of Ireland today.

Sinn Féin’s policy of abstentionism is principled and clearly resonates with the nationalist community. How could republicans object to Britain interfering in Irish affairs if they go over to Westminster and interfere in theirs? Once you take your seat you would lose the moral high ground on that question of Irish sovereignty.

So, the most important lesson the people of Britain could draw from the results is very simple: Take this millstone from around your neck and set yourself, and us, free.