It was the best of campaigns, it was the worst of campaigns. Arlene’s decision to meet the three letter problem of RHI with the three letter solution of IRA worked masterfully in terms of holding the DUP’s vote together; despite three months of unremitting negative publicity and a collapsed government, DUP losses were kept to just 1.1%, with the drop in seats not much worse than the five likely to go with the shrinking of the Assembly. The DUP actually gained 23,000 votes on the surging turnout.
That success for the DUP as a party, however, came at the price of cannibalising Unionism as an entity. Being as generous as I can in defining Independents and minor parties as Unionist, only 45.7% of first preferences were cast for Unionist candidates on Wednesday. This is the lowest ever. By far.
You see, it turns out that if you spend an entire election campaign shouting “Gerry Adams” and “IRA”, you end up inadvertently acting as a party election broadcast for Sinn Féin. Nationalist turnout surged, especially in the rural West. North Belfast has a majority Nationalist Assembly delegation, which seemed impossible on Thursday morning. Abortion, gay marriage, and Brexit pushed soft Unionists towards Alliance.
Beasting Mike Nesbitt about transferring to the SDLP and Alliance probably won thousands of crucial votes at the end of the campaign – although it should be borne in mind that the UUP vote share is actually marginally up, it was the reduction in seats per constituency that killed them – but it comes at a terrible strategic cost to Unionism.
It seems improbable that the next UUP leader will be talking about how much he loves Colum Eastwood or about his support for marriage equality and the EU. I bet the UUP will panic, and select a leader who will circle the wagons, seeking to stabilise the party’s share of a declining market. That is very dangerous for Unionism.
Circling the wagons is always tempting at a time of strategic peril. But there is no cavalry going to ride in to save Unionism from demographic reality. The perception will be that Arlene’s strategy worked and Mike’s failed. What we’re likely to see is a narrower Unionism across the board, more thoroughly socially conservative, more concerned with internal solidarity than reaching out. (Minor footnote – in the midst of DUP scandal, the PUP failed to raise so much as a growl.)
That narrow Unionism is likely to be in a Northern Ireland which looks like a place ever more apart, with virtually complete criminalisation of abortion, without marriage equality, where a suspicion of Eastern Europeans and Muslims too often breaks out into a snarl. Tactics that allowed the DUP to remain, barely, the largest party with a unilateral right to trigger Petitions of Concern will be celebrated, and so deeper strategic questions will go unanswered.
The DUP is somewhere between complacent and contemptuous about the very people whose votes will be decisive in any border poll that could swing either way: detribalised Prods, liberal-left cultural nationalists, and ethnic minorities.
Detribalised, socially liberal, people from Unionist backgrounds are unlikely now to ever have a comfortable political home unless they step outside the tribe to vote Alliance or Green.
The 2011 Census revealed huge numbers of people in Nationalist areas, including traditionally Republican rural areas West of the Bann, who defined themselves as Northern Irish. Arlene’s campaign ensured these people trooped out in epic numbers to vote Sinn Féin this week, including many younger people who had never voted before. Make no mistake, the demographic swing against Unionism will be vicious for the next 20 years; just look at those 2011 Census figures by age cohort.
As for ethnic minorities, let me introduce a little anecdote. In the early 2010s, I was dropped home from a cultural event by a Turkish couple, long settled into a Belfast periphery middle-class area next to a big Loyalist estate. As we turned off North Queen Street on to the New Lodge Road, I spotted in the mirror the usual nervous glances at the murals. “Is this a Republican area?” she asked. I replied that it was indeed. “Oh, that’s alright”, she replied cheerily, “We never get trouble in Republican areas. It’s Loyalist areas where bad things happen to us.”
Now, I’m sure Unionist commentators will be itching to remind me that there have been some appalling racist incidents in Republican areas. And they would be correct to point out that the vilest racial prejudice is not the preserve of any one section of the community – even a former IRA active service member, born and bred in West Belfast, is not immune in his home district.
But there is a difference. Anti-social teenagers are vile in any context. But there are no Nationalist politicians murmuring agreement to “we should get the ethnics out” (Hiya, Sammy!) just as, on an the subject of another border poll vote-loser, there are no Nationalist politicians regretting that “God’s law” does not apply to homosexuals. Unionists used to assume that ethnic minority votes were overwhelmingly theirs in a border poll; I’m far from sure that’s the case anymore, especially among the Northern Ireland-born.
Then we come to Brexit. BME and Eastern European voters are hardly a monolith on this subject or any other (note Ben Lowry’s meeting with Zimbabweans who were voting DUP on abortion and homosexuality), but a clear majority of those who had votes opted for Remain and the mood music since has hardly been encouraging. If you’re a Polish- or Turkish-born naturalised UK citizen, it’s very easy to read Northern Ireland as a place where the pro-Irish people want you here and the pro-British people don’t. This is a small but growing segment of the electorate and one which will be decisive in a really tight border poll.
Nobody has a crystal ball about how the UK will fare after Brexit, but the UK government is clear that it will not only exit the Single Market but also the Customs Union. The government argues that the UK will make a success of this through seizing ‘global’ opportunities, not a view that I share, but regardless Brexit will have a specifically destructive impact in NI, whatever happens across the UK. No matter how snazzy the e-border – and that will cost many billions in IT infrastructure – a customs frontier will mean a horror of online forms and on-the-ground enforcement, particularly targeted in areas which are strongly Remain and predominantly Nationalist. The people who turned out at 80% in Roslea and Ballygawley are going to find lots of reasons to keep voting and to vote to leave the UK.
The economic impact will be severe, even in Greater Belfast. Why locate a facility in Belfast – isolated geographically from a market of 65 million – when you can locate it Dundalk and enjoy access to a much bigger market with no more regulatory burden? And that’s before we even consider the intense economic and cultural isolation for NI that might result, especially if Scotland leaves the UK and stays in the EU.
Few Unionists can conceive of a future where, on purely functional issues, a United Ireland offers Northern Ireland a better future than the United Kingdom. They take it as a given that a vote for a United Ireland is a vote to cut one’s nose off to spite one’s face. That is no longer an assumption deserving uncritical assent. Unionists probably should start planning for what is, in their terms, a nightmare scenario, one where the economic indicators suggest a United Ireland would be a logical goal.
For a brief moment in the mid-2000s, both the UK and the Republic were booming. The increase in support for reunification in polling from SDLP and SF supporters was startling, but faded post-2008. But what if Brexit goes badly wrong in Northern Ireland, even if the UK as a whole survives reasonablly well?
I reiterate, this is not exactly a far-fetched scenario. Hard Brexit will kneecap NI in all sorts of ways, even if Scotland stays in the UK. What would happen if the functional arguments on the constitutional question are completely reversed?
There is a huge political incentive for the EU to shore up the Republic post-Brexit. In fact, I would argue that it is politically impossible for the EU to allow a Eurozone member to be ruined by Brexit. It costs little to subsidise a country with less than 1% of the EU population. The Republic will retain, in any eventuality, the huge advantages of a low red-tape economy with a highly educated English-speaking population under Common Law but also within the EU. The Republic has built up huge political capital in Brussels, Berlin and Paris by being the star pupil of the post-2008 PIGS remedial class.
After the autumn elections, Germany will either be run by Merkel at the head of a centrist coalition or Schulz at the head of a centre-left coalition; don’t get over excited because the AfD is polling at 10-13%. In France, Macron is now a clear favourite. Wilders will shock the Dutch political establishment but will still do well to poll 20% and won’t be in government. The EU will survive the current crises intact, although it will then need to reform radically or run into worse trouble in the 2020s. But in the short-to-medium term, the Republic is safer from Brexit consequences than is given credit for and NI is in deep trouble.
Unionism no longer has an argument for staying Northern Ireland staying in the Union in any future border poll that takes place where the Republic is doing well and Northern Ireland is doing badly economically. Worse than that, after this week’s results, it may will conclude that doesn’t even need one. That would be a mistake.
The huge demographic shift underway in NI will not guarantee a United Ireland, but it radically changes the context in which the constitutional question will be debated. This shift was eclipsed electorally for a almost a decade by poorly performing Nationalist parties at Stormont and post-fleg Unionist enthusiasm.
Arlene Foster just woke everyone up to that shift by spending an election campaign shouting, “Gerry Adams! Gerry Adams!”
45.7% of the vote for all Unionists. I’ll leave that with youse.