What does the UK general election mean for Northern Ireland?
Still trying to get Stormont up and running, this surprise vote gives parties a lot to play for
DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds at Stormont Castle: all parties will insist they are ready and fired up for this latest challenge. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Northern Ireland politicians had enough to contend with trying to get Stormont back up and running.
After the snap Assembly election in early March they are now facing into another snap election in early June for the North’s 18 seats in the House of Commons.
It’s a contest Northern Ireland could have done without, but it seems that Brexit, together with the current weakness of the British Labour Party, has prompted British prime minister Theresa May to take her chance and seek a strong majority for the coming challenges.
It does not seem a destabilised Northern Ireland political system played much part in her decision.
May’s move certainly will concentrate the minds of the political parties who are due back at Stormont today seeking a means to reinstate the Northern Executive and Assembly.
Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire said the forthcoming general election did not change the talks process involving the parties in Belfast and the UK and Irish governments.
Recent negotiations had helped to distil outstanding issues and had identified possible areas for consensus, he said.
“Discussions between the parties, and the UK and Irish Governments, will continue, in accordance with the three-stranded approach.
“The prospect of a forthcoming UK general election does not change this approach.”
It remained his intention to introduce legislation at Westminster addressing immediate requirements, including setting a regional taxation rate to allow rates bills to be issued by councils.
“In addition, I believe it is also right to introduce provisions that would enable an Executive to be formed in early May should agreement be reached.
“To have this legislation in force in time, I will be requesting that its progress through Parliament be fast-tracked.”
Talks to save devolved government were suspended before Easter with little prospect of a deal.
All the North’s parties will insist they are ready and fired up for the coming general election. But after a Westminster election in 2015, Assembly elections in 2016 and again in March this year, the coffers of most parties must be low. Energy levels also must be depleted.
Well-heeled Sinn Féin, with its generous support from the US, tends to be pretty well-heeled so it is probably best placed of all the parties for the Westminster contest. It would relish another Assembly election as well when it sees the DUP under continuing pressure.
In the March poll Sinn Féin had the DUP on the back foot for a variety of reasons – over the Irish language and the “cash for ash” debacle particularly – and so galvanised the republican and nationalist vote that it ended up just one seat and fewer than 1,200 votes behind the DUP.
In the 2015 Westminster election the DUP won eight seats, dropping one in South Antrim; Sinn Féin won four, dropping one in Fermanagh South Tyrone; the Ulster Unionist Party won two, a gain of two; the SDLP held its three seats; and independent unionist Lady (Sylvia) Hermon once again was returned in North Down.
March forwardIn short the result was 11 seats for unionists, seven for nationalists. Were Sinn Féin, say, to regain Fermanagh South Tyrone from the UUP’s Tom Elliott and on a very good day take North Belfast from the DUP’s Nigel Dodds it would be nine-nine and Sinn Féin and nationalism still on the march forward.
The Assembly election raised big constitutional questions for unionism. As well as the Sinn Féin surge, for the first time in the history of the Northern Ireland state it lost its majority at Stormont. There will be unionist concern that if Sinn Féin maintains the vote it won in March, it could do more damage to unionism and by extension weaken the link between Northern Ireland and Britain.
It is is likely that there will be pressure for the UUP and the DUP to arrange some pacts in threatened constituencies to withstand the Sinn Féin challenge.
There also is likely to be Sinn Féin pressure on the SDLP to engage in a nationalist pact, although hitherto the SDLP has resisted such overtures.