Nationalism Bites Back

All has changed. Utterly.

Ten months ago, Sinn Fein and the SDLP mustered a meagre 36% of the vote between them in the May 2016 Assembly election, returning just 40 seats, the lowest number for the nationalist parties since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

In contrast, the newly-elected DUP leader, Arlene Foster, emerged the triumphant winner of a contest which underlined both the DUP’s electoral dominance and broader sense that they were politically in the driving seat, dictating the terms for the new Fresh Start Executive.

That performance fitted neatly into a trend of election results which indicated that nationalists were voting in decreasing numbers, contributing towards a series of electoral setbacks for nationalism that was providing much encouragement to a political unionism increasingly of the view that Irish nationalist sentiment was on the wane in a post-conflict Northern Ireland.

The past 24 hours has provided a rude awakening for many who held to that fundamentally flawed view.

Nationalism has awakened from its slumber, and in the process it has delivered the first electoral results that are reflective of the sharply changing demographic realities of the northern state.

Unionism is no longer a majority within the Assembly.

In the city of Belfast, Unionism holds a mere 6 seats, one less than Sinn Fein’s city-wide total.

Nationalism holds a greater number of seats than unionism in exactly half of the eighteen constituencies.

In the three west of Bann constituencies of Fermanagh South Tyrone, West Tyrone and Mid-Ulster, nationalism took 11 of the 15 seats available.

For the first time ever, North Belfast has returned a majority of nationalist elected representatives, with the bete noir of many nationalists, Nelson McCausland, losing out for the DUP.

Of the eighteen seats lost in an election which saw the Assembly reduced from 108 to 90 seats, 16 were lost by the unionist parties.

Right across the north, nationalists turned out in unprecedented numbers.

Sinn Fein’s 27.9% of the overall vote represented the largest percentage share of the vote for any nationalist party in the history of the state.

The party’s 224,245 votes was the first time a nationalist party had broken through the 200,000 vote mark.

The 39 nationalist seats represents a 43% share of the overall Assembly seats, nationalism’s highest ever return. That figure increases to 44.4% if the All-Ireland socialist People Before Profit seat secured by Gerry Carroll is included, a significant advance on the 37% share of the overall seats secured in 2016 when 40 seats from the 108 seat chamber were secured by the nationalist parties.

The combined representation for Unionist parties will be just 40 seats, with Alliance and the Green Party making up the remainder of seats in the chamber.

One unionist political leader announced his resignation before all votes had even been counted. The other unionist leader spent the day in hiding from the BBC whilst her lieutenants borrowed a script from Team Trump and Spicer, blaming the media for their self-inflicted wounds in a series of interviews that did little to inspire confidence in their ability to rationally analyse and reflect upon the reasons for their changing fortunes.

Whilst Sinn Fein are the unquestionable primary victors of this election, the SDLP will also have many reasons to cheer.

The party will be smarting at losing its status as the largest nationalist party in South Down and Foyle, but the 12 seats returned matches the number secured in 2016, when there were 108 seats to be won, meaning they have increased their share of seats. This is important because it has meant that the SDLP returns to the Assembly as the third largest party.

The election results have vindicated the strategic decisions by both nationalist parties to progress their respective transition processes in recent times.

Sinn Fein returns with 27 MLAs, and amongst their number will be no fewer than 11 women, the largest number of female representatives returned by any of the major parties since the Assembly was established in 1998. The newly elected Sinn Fein representative tier (including northern leader, Michelle O’Neill) reflect the generational change finally beginning to take place within the party in the north.

The party is well positioned to challenge for Westminster seats in South Down, Foyle and Fermanagh South Tyrone amidst a renewed sense of rivalry and electoral engagement by nationalists which is likely to maintain the momentum driving the surging nationalist turnout figures into the future.

The SDLP’s star performers throughout the campaign, Nichola Mallon and Claire Hanna, both delivered where their fellow Belfast party representative Alex Attwood could not, and the party must be left rueing its decision to not make the necessary changes in personnel in West Belfast before the electorate forced them to do so.

The SDLP will also be delighted that two of its veteran candidates, Dolores Kelly and John Dallat, both delivered what looked to be improbable victories for long periods throughout the day.

But the icing on the cake for Nationalism was the stunning result secured by Pat Catney in a Lagan Valley constituency considered to be hostile terrain for nationalist parties since boundary changes removed the strongly nationalist districts of Dunmurry, Lagmore and Glenavy after 2007.

Catney’s victory was easily the most surprising of this election and owed a lot to a masterful ground level and publicity strategy which relied upon convincing the latent nationalist population of the rapidly changing Lisburn city region that a credible challenge for a seat was possible. It was a strategy that Oliver McMullan utilised so effectively to win and retain an unlikely Sinn Fein seat in East Antrim in 2011 and 2016. It also showed what is possible, and I would expect nationalism to claim a seat in Strangford and, possibly, East Antrim once again in the short term future, further increasing nationalist representation towards the 45-seat figure.

This is a watershed election, the first in which the demographic reality of a changing Northern Ireland has been borne out in electoral terms.

For nationalists, the distance between the aspiration and fulfilment of a united Ireland has never appeared as close as it does today.

Unionism is no longer a majority in the north of Ireland.

Never has the Union as we know it seemed as precarious.

As she reflects on her position and how she guided unionism from the dizzy heights of last May to the unprecedented lows of today, Arlene Foster must accept that she is directly responsible for delivering unionism’s worst election performance in the history of the northern state.

For Sinn Fein, the result utterly vindicates the decision to let the people speak over an RHI scandal and broader DUP approach to a power-sharing project which can only truly work if it is premised upon a genuine commitment to mutual respect and equality.

By voting in such numbers, nationalists have firmly concluded that such a commitment is not forthcoming from an Arlene Foster-led DUP. That will resonate within Sinn Fein, and their leadership will know that honouring the mandate received will require delivery before a return to devolution.

Nationalists took to the polls because they believed a statement had to be made in support of Martin McGuinness’ approach to power-sharing and in reaction to the competing approach of Arlene Foster.

Whilst it would be wrong to interpret the election results as indicating the possibility that nationalism could win a border poll in the short-term, nevertheless the results provide a powerful affirmation for nationalists that support for that project remains rock solid amongst a nationalist community whose decision to finally wield their potential electoral power has delivered in the most spectacular manner.

Maith thú, Arlene.