Minutes after the general election exit poll results were known on Thursday night, the term “United Ireland” was trending on Twitter in Northern Ireland. It is easy to see why. The electoral map in the North is now starkly different in style and substance to that of Britain.
For a start, the strongest message coming from the region’s voters in this election is a rejection of Brexit. And a common concern of every single one of its 18 MPs is wariness of the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Boris Johnson.
But the claim that his deal would be the one to get Brexit done and dusted was the basis on which the Conservatives won their landslide majority. That Northern Ireland doesn’t much like it is really of very minor concern to the British electorate. When Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waved around the leaked documents confirming that the deal would mean barriers to trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, his primary point was that Johnson was a liar rather than that special care should be taken to protect the province. (And even then neither point appeared to put a dent in his adversary’s appeal).
There is no small irony in this result – most particularly for the Democratic Uinionist Party, which played its enthusiastic part in seeing the soft Brexit offered by prime minister Theresa May killed with a humiliating three blows from the House of Commons. The only legally-binding difference between Johnson’s deal and May’s deal is in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.
Johnson knuckled down on that protocol to wrench the “detested backstop” out of it. In making its terms only Northern Ireland-specific, he sought to prevent it from being able to have any influence over the shape of the UK’s post-Brexit future. These are the terms on which the UK will leave the EU early in 2020. All indications are that the union will be placed at risk by English insouciance as much as by Scottish independence.
So, is the growth in centrism, anti-abstentionism and Remain support among voters in Northern Ireland too little, too late? To put it another way: what could Remain possibly mean in a UK that has left the EU?
One thing it does not inevitably mean in the North is Irish unification. Unionist MPs in Northern Ireland are now a minority, that is true. But the reason why the DUP is under pressure is not because of a general ‘greening’ of the electorate, nor because of any fabled ‘pan-nationalist front’. Instead, they lost because of a pro-Remain vote, which came from traditional unionist voters as well as nationalist ones and, indeed, from people who do not identify with either affiliation.
The prospect of carrying a basket-case Northern Ireland is not any more attractive to the Irish electorate than it is to the British
Such voters should not be easily dismissed. The Alliance Party received the third largest portion of the vote share in this election. This is in no small way connected to the fact that, according to the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, one in two people in Northern Ireland identify as neither unionist nor nationalist. Of course, it is not possible to be puritanically free from the question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. And the majority of such “neithers” are in favour of the North being part of the UK, but on the terms of the Belfast Agreement, with functioning devolution.
Take devolution out of the mix, however, and not only do you have a Northern Ireland in public service-delivery crisis (as is becoming ever-more apparent), you also have a stark choice between London rule or Dublin rule. Few unionists are stepping up to advocate direct rule right now, and with good reason. It would be a brave politician who would seek to assure unionist voters that a swaggering Johnson government could be trusted with complete control over Northern Ireland’s future.
And Brexit must inevitably be factored into consideration. According to the same survey, a third of DUP supporters say that Brexit makes them more resistant to the idea of a united Ireland, whereas half of Sinn Féin supporters report that Brexit makes them more in favour of Irish unity. Unsurprising polarisation there. But one thing the DUP would be wise to consider is that the survey also finds that almost a third of Alliance Party voters say that Brexit makes them more in favour of Irish unity.
So, support for the union is becoming more conditional. Although it is too late to stop Brexit, unionism’s best hope is to establish properly functioning devolution and to seek full implementation of the 1998 Agreement, as it is this multilevel model that keeps the North afloat and garners the widest base of support across the population.
This is, some might argue, also the best hope for nationalism too. The prospect of carrying a basket-case Northern Ireland is not any more attractive to the Irish electorate than it is to the British.
And – crucially – this is also the best hope that Northern Ireland has for managing the transition into Brexit. The Stormont Executive would be more influential than MPs in Westminster when it comes to navigating the transition into and beyond Brexit. Furthermore, properly-functioning institutions across all three strands of the Agreement are the bare minimum required if the unique challenges for the post-Brexit governance of Northern Ireland are to be met.
Talks to restore Stormont begin on Monday. This is another chance for all parties to show leadership for a region more aware than ever of its vulnerability. To miss it truly would be an act of betrayal.
Dr Katy Hayward is a senior fellow in the UK in a Changing Europe initiative