Middle ground punished in Orange versus Green battle

DUP soared ahead, with 53,400 votes more than Sinn Féin

DUP leader Arlene Foster (centre) with MPs at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast after British prime minister Theresa May  announced that she will work with “friends and allies” in the DUP to enable her to lead a government.  Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

DUP leader Arlene Foster (centre) with MPs at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast after British prime minister Theresa May announced that she will work with “friends and allies” in the DUP to enable her to lead a government. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

 

The middle ground was vanquished in the Westminster election in Northern Ireland.

The DUP and Sinn Féin emerged triumphant while the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists were wiped out.

The DUP and Sinn Féin started off respectively with eight and four seats but now they have 10 and seven seats, with Independent unionist Lady (Sylvia) Hermon over in North Down the lonely representative of a less tribal form of politics.

Before people went to the polls on Thursday the SDLP held three seats, the Ulster Unionist Party two. Now they have none.

From the outset this was an Orange versus Green battle and as a consequence it was those in the middle who were punished.

The fact that Sinn Féin came within one seat and fewer than 1,200 votes of the DUP in the March election meant that the two main parties were able to fight this election mainly on constitutional grounds.

If nationalists abandoned the SDLP and supported Sinn Féin then the prospect of a united Ireland would be brought closer, it was argued, and it seems many nationalists bought that argument.

But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Therefore unionists were invited to ditch the UUP and throw in their lot with the DUP in order to counter Sinn Féin’s drive for a Border poll. And that is what they did.

Belfast Agreement

It means that the two parties who were the main architects of the 1998 Belfast Agreement and the peace process – the SDLP and UUP – now have no representation in the House of Commons.

Indeed there is now no Northern nationalist MP who will sit in the House of Commons given that the seven Sinn Féin MPs who were elected early yesterday morning will not take their Westminster seats.

Gerry Adams was explicit at the Belfast count centre in the Titanic Exhibition Centre that there is no prospect whatsoever of Sinn Féin abandoning its abstentionist stance.

Seven Sinn Féin MPs sitting on the green benches of the House of Commons would be a very welcome asset to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

It would help Corbyn and the House of Commons opposition make life even more difficult for Theresa May.

But it is not going to happen. Early in the election Sinn Féin’s Northern leader said Sinn Féiners were “proud abstentionists”.

That is not going to change but still Sinn Féin will be under considerable pressure to alter its stance, particularly if it can be argued that entering the House of Commons might result in a much softer Brexit or even a second referendum post any Brexit deal.

Gerry Adams and Arlene Foster and their respective leaderships are cock-a-hoop after this election, but it is the DUP which is best pleased – and not just because it is propping up the Tories in government, and about to reap all the perks and benefits that go with it.

The question now is whether the ultra-dominant DUP and Sinn Féin can negotiate a deal to reinstate the Northern Executive and Assembly. Northern Secretary James Brokenshire has given the parties until June 29th to reach agreement.

Observing the demeanour and comments of DUP and Sinn Féin leaders it was hard to be optimistic that the gaps between them could be bridged in such a short time.

If they can’t end the deadlock then the next Northern secretary – whoever they may be – will be faced with calling more Assembly elections or introducing direct rule from a Westminster preoccupied with matters such as Brexit and keeping a precarious British government upright.

Throughout the election campaign Sinn Féin majored on “maintaining the momentum” of the March Assembly result when it came so close to the DUP.

Equally during the campaign Foster said this would be a “wake-up” election for unionists, and she was right. Sinn Féin witnessed its overall vote increase from 224,245 votes in March to 238,915 votes on Thursday – an increase of 14,670 votes.

The DUP, however, saw its overall vote shoot up from 225,413 votes in March to 292,316 votes on Thursday – a rise of almost 67,000 votes – more than 10 per cent compared to the 5 per cent increase in the Sinn Féin vote.

Prospects

So, from the DUP being fewer than 1,200 votes ahead of Sinn Féin in March it is now 53,400 votes in front of its main rivals. That’s a majority that will dampen the prospects of Adams getting his Border poll, as he had been demanding and as he argued the Assembly result justified.

But it won’t stop Sinn Féin politicians majoring on the prospects of constitutional change, of everything being changed utterly after Thursday’s vote.

Mary Lou McDonald, the potential successor to Adams, described the election as the “endgame of partition”, and that will be a constant theme in the long period ahead.

It is a form of polarising politics that will mutually suit the DUP and Sinn Féin. But polarisation will hardly be good for Northern Ireland society. Still, that’s what the voters appear to have asked for.

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