Stephen Collins: UK election shows a Border poll is not a priority
Election proves voters primarily care about getting Northern Ireland working again
A view of Stormont as cross-party talks to restore the Northern Ireland powersharing government begin, in Belfast. File photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
The results of the Westminster election in Northern Ireland provoked a predictable chorus from commentators claiming it was a vote for a united Ireland, even though it was clearly nothing of the kind. To paraphrase Boris Johnson, what the result actually amounted to was a plea from the electorate to make Northern Ireland work.
Even the most cursory analysis of the outcome left little doubt about what the voters were saying. The only party campaigning for a united Ireland now, with an early Border poll to pave the way for unity, was Sinn Féin, and that party was the biggest loser in the election.
The DUP richly deserved the stab in the back they received from their erstwhile ally Boris Johnson
Sinn Féin’s share of the vote was down almost seven percentage points on the last Westminster election in 2017. While it retained seven seats in the House of Commons, which it will as usual continue to boycott, the result indicates that a significant segment of the nationalist population is losing patience with the party’s negative approach.
There was also evidence that unionist voters are beginning to drift way from the DUP, whose disastrous Brexit policy has left the party discredited at home and without any kind of influence at Westminster. The party had the chance to pursue the kind of soft Brexit that the majority of people in the North clearly want, but instead they lined up with the most hardline Brexiteers in the Conservative Party to sabotage Theresa May’s valiant efforts to deliver it.
The DUP richly deserved the stab in the back they received from their erstwhile ally Boris Johnson when he was forced into a corner by the Irish Government’s resolute stand. Whether it will teach them the obvious lesson that their best hope for the future is to co-operate with the other parties in the North, and those in the Republic as well, to make the Belfast Agreement work, only time will tell.
The big success stories of the election were the increased support for the SDLP and the Alliance Party. What was really striking about the success of Colum Eastwood in Derry and Claire Hanna in Belfast was not simply that they won seats but that they won with such thumping majorities. The manner in which Eastwood managed to oust Sinn Féin’s Elisha McCallion by more than 17,000 votes was a clear statement by the voters of Derry not just that they want to be represented in the House of Commons but that they want politics to work again in the North.
It would not be the first time that the welfare of Northern Ireland took second place to internal Tory wrangling
Candidates of all parties reported that the message from voters on the doorsteps was that they want to see the institutions at Stormont restored. The continuing surge of the Alliance Party, which moved into third place in terms of vote share, is another positive sign which indicates a growing desire to move away from tribal politics.
The heartening message from the election was that the bulk of the electorate in the North want to make politics in the region work again regardless of whether their long-term objective is the maintenance of the United Kingdom or the achievement of a united Ireland. That places a huge responsibility on all of the parties to find the compromises necessary to make the latest round of talks work.
The prompt move by the Irish and British governments to get the talks going as quickly as possible after the election is a positive sign that both are committed to making the Belfast Agreement work and are not going to be sidetracked by fanciful notions of an early Border poll.
The consensus between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on the issue is hugely important as it sends out a clear signal to all sides in the North, and to the British government for that matter, that neither of the big Dáil parties intends to play politics with such an important issue. The constructive approach by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin to the current talks puts into perspective the attempt by some of the more junior figures in his party like Senator Mark Daly and health spokesman Stephen Donnelly to play the green card.
Most of the serious politicians in the Dáil have long moved on from cliches about a united Ireland to accepting that the Belfast Agreement is the best path to the kind of agreed Ireland that a majority of people on both sides of the Border want. It is imperative that the parties in the North find a way to make that agreement work again.
One potentially destabilising factor could be the major cabinet reshuffle planned by Boris Johnson for the new year. The current Northern Secretary Julian Smith is widely recognised as the best occupant of the post for some time and he has put in a huge effort to create the right atmosphere for the current talks.
There have been some leaks from Downing Street suggesting that he is for the chop for purely internal Conservative Party reasons. It would be a real tragedy if that were to happen at such a critical juncture, but it would not be the first time that the welfare of Northern Ireland took second place to internal wrangling among the Tories.