Associate Director Christine Quigley examines the 18 seats in Northern Ireland ahead of December 12th.
In recent years, Northern Ireland has become increasingly famous internationally as the home of Game of Thrones. While you’re a lot less likely to run into invading queens riding dragons or zombie armies in Belfast or Derry than in Westeros, Northern Irish politics can seem as impenetrable and internecine to outsiders as those of the Seven Kingdoms.
The 2017 General Election saw Westminster-based politicos scramble to understand Northern Irish politics, following the confidence-and-supply arrangement between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). With the possibility of another hung parliament and significant developments from various Northern Irish parties in the past few weeks, this time round, the province could have an even larger role to play in Westminster.
Northern Ireland comprises eighteen Westminster constituencies; with ten in the last Parliament held by the DUP, seven by Sinn Féin and one by independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon. This result represented a significant narrowing of party spread, with both the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) losing all of their Westminster seats in 2017, and with the Alliance Party losing its only seat in the 2015 election.
With Sinn Féin continuing the abstentionist policy it first adopted in 1907, in practice the only voices heard in Westminster representing the province in this Parliament have been unionist ones. The DUP continues to take a strong pro-Brexit stance, despite Northern Ireland voting by 56% to 44% to remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum, leaving independent Lady Hermon the only pro-Remain voice representing Northern Ireland in Westminster through crucial votes on Theresa May’s and Boris Johnson’s deals.
Frustration at the imposition of Brexit on a nation that voted to reject it is likely to fuel some major shifts in this upcoming election. Over the past few years, Sinn Féin MPs have faced increasing calls from the left and pro-Remain forces in British politics to take their seats and raise their voices in Westminster to try to stop Brexit. The Party’s line remains that it stands as an explicitly abstentionist party, refusing to recognise any legitimacy of the Westminster Parliament over Irish affairs, and to take its seats would be a betrayal of the voters who support this. However, last week Party President Mary Lou McDonald announced that Sinn Féin would stand aside in three constituencies in order to enable the election of explicitly pro-Remain MPs. Sinn Féin urged its voters to back the SDLP’s Claire Hanna in South Belfast, Alliance Party leader and former MP Naomi Long in East Belfast, and very unusually, the unionist Lady Hermon in North Down. The Sinn Féin vote should be enough to push Hanna over the line in South Belfast, along with support from the Green Party of Northern Ireland, but the DUP’s Gavin Robinson holds a larger majority in East Belfast and may keep his seat. The republican endorsement hasn’t been received as well by Lady Hermon, who announced days later that she would not be contesting the seat she has held since 2001.
At the same time, the UUP has pledged not to stand a candidate against Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader, in North Belfast, to avoid splitting the unionist vote and allowing Sinn Féin to take the seat. The SDLP is not standing in this election, and the 2,058 votes it won last time round compared with Dodds’ 2,081 vote majority mean that this constituency will be one to watch on election night.
Election results in Northern Ireland are never certain – just look at the 23% swing from the DUP to the Alliance Party that unseated former First Minister Peter Robinson in 2010, in one of the biggest shocks of the night. Still, the polling and electoral pacts indicate two things – firstly, that there will be a plurality of voices representing NI in the next Parliament, on both sides of the Brexit question, and secondly, that the DUP’s power to help the Conservatives form a government is likely to be significantly diminished.
As Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger says, “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder.” While we may see a complicated election result from Northern Ireland next month, each of the parties will be looking to make deals or otherwise influence the Conservatives and Labour over the next few months. We can expect that Northern Ireland will remain high on the political agenda for years to come.