GE2017 in Northern Ireland: total eclipse of the moderates

Dr Neil Matthews

Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Bristol and former Research Fellow on the Northern Ireland Assembly Election Study 2016.

Section 6: The Nations

Northern Ireland’s voters could be forgiven if their immediate reaction to Theresa May’s calling a snap election was one of complete exasperation. Barely a month had passed since snap elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the 2017 General Election would be the seventh time in four years that they were asked to troop to the polls

The 2017 General Election result in Northern Ireland should be viewed in light of developments at the devolved level. Even by the province’s standards, 2017 has been a seismic year in Northern Irish politics. It began with the collapse of the power-sharing government at Stormont; Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister (DFM) Martin McGuinness resigning in protest at the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) mismanagement of a government-funded renewable energy initiative, among other things. Sinn Féin’s refusal to nominate a DFM unless DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster stepped aside while a public inquiry was held into the scheme triggered fresh Assembly elections in March. Those elections saw a marked surge in the nationalist vote, depriving unionists of a majority at Stormont for the first time in the history of the Northern Irish state and bringing Sinn Féin to within 1,168 votes and one seat of the DUP’s mantle as the largest party. The abiding impression was therefore one of nationalist gains juxtaposed with unionist decline.

Following the Assembly election, the DUP and Sinn Féin entered negotiations to end the impasse at Stormont. While there were small signs of progress, talks were cut short by the General Election. The Westminster election could therefore not have come at a worse time as far as power-sharing in Northern Ireland was concerned. Any prospect of reconciliation was quickly extinguished as parties retreated to their respective corners for another divisive campaign. With the close-run Assembly contest still fresh in voters’ minds, the two main parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin – appealed to their communities for a mandate to strengthen their hand in post-election talks on the restoration of devolution.

Fuelled in part by the first-past-the-post electoral system, Westminster elections in Northern Ireland typically take the form of sectarian headcounts. 2017 was no exception. To avoid splitting the unionist vote the DUP opted not to field a candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Likewise, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) did not stand in North Belfast, gifting the DUP a clear run against Sinn Féin. These informal constituency-level pacts were not replicated by the nationalist parties.

The election proved nothing short of a triumph for the DUP – securing ten of the eighteen seats available and increasing its share of the vote by 10.3 percent. This represented a high-water mark for the party at Westminster and would, ultimately, grant it ‘kingmaker’ status at national level (see below). Its eight-seat haul from the 2015 General Election was defended with relative ease, including in East Belfast where the incumbent was under pressure from a strong Alliance challenge. As well as gains in South Antrim and South Belfast – at the expense of the UUP and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) respectively – the party took a substantial chunk out of the Independent Lady Sylvia Hermon’s vote in North Down. 11 seats might well be achievable for the DUP in the not-too-distant future.

DUP joy was matched by UUP angst. Following Mike Nesbitt’s resignation in the wake of a poor showing in March’s Assembly contest, the party entered the election under new leadership. It would prove a chastening debut for Robin Swann as his party lost both its seats, South Antrim and Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The UUP’s overall vote share slumped to 10.3 percent – a 5.7 percent decline on 2015. Coming off the back of a dismal Assembly election, this result leaves the once dominant Ulster Unionists facing serious questions as to how they fashion a way forward and arrest their interminable decline.

A similar picture – of a moderate party suffering electoral wipe-out at the hands of a more hard-line ethno-national rival – was observable on the nationalist side. Sinn Féin – with new northern leader Michelle O’Neill at the helm – posted its best ever Westminster result, winning seven seats. The most significant Sinn Féin gains came in South Down and Foyle, both at the expense of the SDLP. These seats were long established SDLP citadels: South Down had been represented by an SDLP MP since 1987; Foyle since 1983. Coupled with losing South Belfast to the DUP, these losses would leave the SDLP facing a similar existential crisis to that of the UUP.

Whatever of the results – and questions of the future viability of the UUP and SDLP – the 2017 election in Northern Ireland will be remembered for the bearing it would have on the formation of a national government. The Conservative Party’s failure to secure an overall majority at Westminster saw them invite the DUP to prop up a minority government. What this Conservative-DUP arrangement means for the future of devolution in Northern Ireland, and relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin remains to be seen. No longer an exceptional ‘place apart’, often consigned to the margins of UK politics, all eyes are suddenly on Northern Ireland.