Unionist heartland reacts: ‘I feel sick she will be running our country’

Voters wanted to give DUP ‘bloody nose’, says North Down constituent of Alliance surge

An Orange Order parade in Bangor at the weekend. Photograph: Peter Murtagh

There is a polished black granite memorial plaque at Bangor Castle, the seat of local government in the north Co Down town.

“Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the foundation of Northern Ireland,” it reads, “May 3rd, 2021.”

A hundred and one years, plus three days, after the creation of Northern Ireland, which was founded, designed and for many years largely administered to the exclusion of one section of the population, members of the Orange Order gathered mere feet from the plaque on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning.

The overnight news from the election count is that Sinn Féin has emerged as the undisputed largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and its leader has an unanswerable claim to be first minister.

John Hoy, Armagh Orange Order county master and leader of the youth parade in Bangor. Photograph: Peter Murtagh

“It’s not the result that I would have wished for,” says John Hoy, Armagh county master and organiser of his county’s annual junior Orange Order parade in the seaside town.

“I feel sick that she will be running our country,” says another Orangeman from south Armagh in reference to Sinn Féin’s deputy leader and likely first minister, Michelle O’Neill.

“Don’t be putting my name into that,” he adds. “Not where I’m from.”

Sixteen bands gather in Castle Park. They play flutes, accordions and drums and are decked out in band uniforms with the colours of red and deep blue dominating.

Men, women and children wear orange collarettes, and the band names, displayed on huge banners, proclaim matters important to the Orange tradition. Among them are the Kilbracks Bible and Crown Defenders from Markethill, the Moyrourkan True Blues, and the Somme Memorial band from Bangor itself.

They march from Castle Park down into the town, to the seafront and then back again. The atmosphere is very much that of a family day out rather than an assertion of anything territorial, and the reaction to the election result is more sad than angry.

“It’s heartbreaking,” says one man, an importer and distributor of firefighting equipment, who does not want to be named – “250,000 of my compatriots have decided to vote for a party that is unapologetic for the death and destruction inflicted on us and which they glorify and celebrate. That is very sad.”

"Unionists are a democratic people," says the man from south Armagh. He wants politicians to stop what he describes as "the silly nonsense"

But there is also a marked degree of acceptance of the election result and its implications.

“I’m a realist,” says his companion David Cahoon, a born again Christian Orangeman in bowler hat and sunglasses. “We’re a democracy,” he says, adding “but it is a shared office.”

He is passionate in his denunciation of the Northern Ireland protocol. What seems to matter more to him is that all politicians “uphold the moral law of God”.

“Unionists are a democratic people,” says the man from south Armagh. The result is accepted. He wants unionists politicians to stop what he describes as “the silly nonsense”, a reference to unionist infighting.

Alliance surge

While that was one feature of the election, another was a pronounced “a plague on both your houses” rejection of the Orange versus Green stasis in Northern Irish politics and a widespread yearning for politicians to “get on with the job”.

Anecdotal evidence suggests this lies behind the surge of support for the Alliance Party, the “yellow splash”, as one commentator put it in reference to the party’s colour, which more than doubled its seats in the Assembly from eight to 17.

North Down is one of several constituencies where the party won two of the available five seats, and support for a change in the way politics is done is not hard to find in Bangor.

“Lots of people are bored with division and want a party that wants to work together [with others] to fix things,” says town resident Rachel Surgenor, who voted Green, Alliance, SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party , in that order. Voters wanted to give the Democratic Unionist Party “a bloody nose”, she says, “and that’s exactly what they did”.

Her friend Juliana Sloan, who voted Alliance, Green and UUP, agrees.

“The DUP are all ‘the Fenians are taking over’ [but] an awful lot of people don’t care about that any more,” she says. She describes herself as “secretly delighted” at the election result.

“Part of this is to do with Brexit and the way the DUP backed the wrong horse,” she says. “I’m optimistic because it’s clear there’s an appetite for change. There are a lot of people who have decided they’ve had enough, and that’s good.”

She adds: “And we’re going to have a woman prime minister!”

In Tyrone, Alan, a self-employed 35-year-old who doesn’t want to be identified, also yearns for politics that are not hobbled by tribalism.

A unionist by instinct, he says “my views have evolved over the years”.

“I would be very much UUP leaning and its very disappointing to see them do so bad,” he says before counting has ended. (In the end, the UUP loses just one seat.) “The DUP is locked in a time warp. The SDLP, the UUP and Alliance could make a very good combination for running this place.”

He says the "vast majority" of people want to get on with life and want politicians to work together. Most people see Stormont as a "circus"

Sinn Féin’s emergence as the largest party in the Assembly does not surprise him.

“I follow politics so it isn’t a shock,” he says . “I’ve seen this coming, though it is a disappointment.”

He says the “vast majority” of people want to get on with life and want politicians to work together. Most people, he says, see Stormont as a “circus”.

“Where’s the normal politics,” he asks. “Where’s the reasonable, day-to-day stuff? Let’s get on with that.”

He has a young daughter and he wants better for her. “I’d like her to grow up in a Northern Ireland where no one consciously, or unconsciously, asks the question whether she’s a Protestant or a Roman Catholic. I want her to grow up and vote on policies and not the constitutional question,” he says.

United Ireland

While Sinn Féin shied away from promoting a Border poll during the election campaign, though it was in its manifesto, when vote counting ended, leaders again urged one. The prospect of such a vote does not disturb everyone.

“I feel slightly uneasy but, weirdly, I would quite like there to be a united Ireland some time in the future,” says Daryl O’Dowd, a middle-ground voter and Bangor resident. “A vote for a united Ireland some time in the future, 10 years maybe, is fine with me. To me, England and its anti-European and anti-immigration politics, I want to get way from all that altogether.”

She says that all her friends, many of whom go back to her school days and have similar pro-Alliance, SDLP or soft unionist outlooks, feel the same way.

Alan is also relaxed on the subject of a Border poll, while not being in favour of a united Ireland.

“I was brought up British,” he says. “I have British and Irish passports. I call myself Irish now but it’s my second nationality. I’m probably Northern Irish first and then British.”

He thinks people in the Republic are completely unprepared for what a united Ireland might mean. Unionist and Protestant people in Northern Ireland would not tolerate being “assimilated” into a united Ireland and feared being “dominated”.

"At the moment, we've too much else to worry about – electricity and food [prices]. I'm fed up with the Orange and Green stuff but I want my identity protected"

Some elements would oppose such a change by force, he fears, suggesting that unrest could be “worse than the Troubles”.

This is echoed in part by “Eileen”, a middle-aged woman in the very hard line loyalist area of Pitt Park on Newtownards Road in east Belfast, who for years has declined to tell me her real name but is nonetheless happy to chat to a Dublin reporter.

“I’m worried if they start talking about it,” she says of a Border poll/united Ireland. “At the moment, we’ve too much else to worry about – electricity and food [prices]. I’m fed up with the Orange and Green stuff but I want my identity protected.”

The area is festooned with celebrations of loyalist paramilitarism and I ask Eileen what defines her identity.

“The beat of the drum,” she says. “It’s an emotional thing.”

The Bangor parade Orangemen had a “be careful what you wish for” approach to a Border poll, saying it would be rejected at the ballot box.

“A lot of those Sinn Féin voters will not vote for a united Ireland,” said the Orangeman from south Armagh.

A senior unionist figure who will not be quoted by name is sanguine at the prospect of first minister Michelle O’Neill and all that might mean.

“It’s the best thing that could happen, frankly,” he says. “We’ve fetishised about this, despite the fact that it’s a joint office. So it is perhaps a good thing that we have this monkey off our back. Outside the symbolism, it makes no practical difference.”

Except that, in Northern Ireland, symbolism matters perhaps more than anywhere else.