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.


  • SeaanUiNeill

    OtF, the entire ethos of the DUP in government has been confrontation and more confrontation, along with (at least in public) a constant display of immovability. As you’ve said in earlier posts, their credibility on those issues which they claim to stand for in order to ensure votes is perhaps questionable. But it is more their evident lack of vision and that opportunism which makes them willing to play their support base on issues of polarisation which will be the most serious problem in the short term now. It appears inevitable that the dreary polarisation we have seen played out long before this election formalised it will ensure that the DUP will simply harden attitudes, and ignore those growing problems which have brought them to this pass until the polarisation ensures that they play no active part when the steady demographic shift ensures a re-unification of Ireland which will find them with no “plan B’ and accordingly no negotiable position other than the then entirely redundant policy of “not an inch.”

    I am not unaware that sectarianism is not a one party problem here, but it is the DUP, not SF, which you are now seemingly looking to for shelter from that storm the election has unleashed on political Unionism. Another image: any of us who have been out at sea on a small sail boat know that as the boat tips with gusts of wind, the balance needs to be weighed on the side which lies into the wind, and leaning towards the force of the wind ensures that the boat will certainly capsize. This is the very moment when it is important not to simply run along with the panic, and to recognise that your instinct about their cynicism and arrogance over the last years was true. As Talleyrand said the restored Bourbons in 1813, I’d imagine from long experience that the DUP have “learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” This is not the time to begin to compound this problem.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    That wasn’t the question – you managed to throw up a distraction while condemning distractions. Are you able to answer the question?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    That alone wasn’t it though, it’s that in the context of the Brexit kerfuffle

  • Steve

    A stunning result for Sinn Fein who took a gamble with the election & beat the house. They are one of the shrewdest political operaters you’ll find anywhere.

    But unless they want the nationalist turnout to plummet again in the next election, alongside a resurgent Unionist vote, they’ll have to start delivering. And they’ve had a poor record of delivering for nationalist areas in their years in Gov so far.

    Despite Martin McGuinness being from (& then also representing) Derry, the city has continued to be the worst economic performer in the UK & Ireland. And Stormont has done nothing to address that, focusing instead largely on the significantly more prosperous Greater Belfast area. If SF don’t do a lot in what will be a relatively short period of time, they will risk taking a big step backwards at the next election. And deservedly so, as they’ll have no excuses or hiding place.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Good point and I wonder if over-excited Catholic supremacist Republicans are coming in their pants a little here 😉 It’s very, erm, premature …

    What the 2011 Census showed was the Catholic population consisting not just of Irish Catholics, broadly, but also overseas born Catholics from places like Poland and the Philippines. Of the 45 per cent Catholic number, around 2-3 per cent are from non-Irish Catholic backgrounds. (The indigenous Catholic percentage had barely risen since 1991.) Their votes for a future united Ireland I would guess are less than obviously nailed on. I would expect most are rather bemused and uninterested by the ancient hatreds here – no one came to sample that.

    The Census also showed non-Catholics as ever not a homogenous block, but this time with the secular, non-religious growing (and that group is growing among supposedly ‘Catholic’ people also). The most likely future isn’t in reality some Catholic majority juggernaut driving us all towards a united Ireland, but a future in which fewer people have a religious affiliation at all and where the Catholic and Protestant blocks are vying for the split within 80 or 75 per cent of the population. The coming Catholic ‘majority’ if it ever happens will more likely be 51 per cent of 80 per cent – so about 40 per cent. As religious and even ethnic identity loosens its hold, we have to rethink what we imagine ‘majority’ means in terms of community affiliation. I know several people in mixed marriages, which are more common now than 30 years ago, and which way their progeny will lean on the border etc is unclear. But it’s likely they won’t want a politics that places that question centre stage.

    This is the bigger shift that sectarian headcounters on both sides miss: neither block is likely to have a majority in future, because of the growth of the non-aligned. And if you’re really listening for trends among younger people, you’ll know that non-aligned growth is coming, big time.

    Longer term SF’s goose is cooked, unless it can credibly become a party that cares about all equally, not just Catholics. Currently it isn’t anywhere near being that party. And judging by the rather ill-judged Catholic triumphalism on display in these pages, its constituency still hasn’t grasped how the ground is shifting under their feet, among those switched off by the Manichaean us vs them ideology. ‘Success’ at the recent election could well be a bar to the kind of radical reinvention SF needs longer term.

  • Madra Uisce

    Your post sums up everything that is wrong with this rotten statelet and why it must go. You are quite prepared to vote for a party of sectarian bigots and homophobes who have just fleeced the taxpayer of £500million and who are still cavorting with loyalist drug dealing terrorists even though you have grave reservations about them. As long as themmuns dont get in then thats fine. There will come a point when circling the wagons will no longer suffice and What Then?

  • Madra Uisce

    The reason you are stuck with them is because the NI people are sectarian and vote for them That is the simple truth of the matter. That will not change until this place is gone. Brexit and English nationalism will take care of that a lot sooner that you think.

  • Madra Uisce

    It seems like I have touched a nerve that you resort to personal attacks. Go right ahead

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Good man. Lest hope for better, more moral parties and very soon. I’m a coffee man myself, and I remember my grandfathers old Great War comrades during the 1950s arguing their experiences out over the endless smell of fresh coffee in his study.

    The other night had me waiting for the final south Belfast result on Slugger with a steady stream of coffee. Still “the colonies” mind, although Cuban coffee is very clean on the palate…….

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Indeed many are. Revealing phrase, “until this place is gone”. But it won’t be gone, this is fantasist thinking. All that may happen is a change of proprietor. The fundamental antagonisms aren’t remotely likely to disappear in a united Ireland scenario. You’re wishing NI’s problems away rather than dealing with them.

  • woodkerne

    Okay, but by kerfuffle you mean a further instance of DUP disregard of the popular will in general and offence against the collective consciousness of the catholic community, in particular. Arlene was dreaming she was somehow in a NI pre-civil- rights when/where she might behave in triumphalist and bellicose manner, without consequence. She woke up during her acceptance speech to a horrific reality: that not only were the fenians not in their place but they weren’t any longer a subdued minority. ‘Schadenfreude’, the dream-is-over, egg-on-face for Arlene and ‘serves her bloody right too’!’ I can assure you is a fare summary of the mood among nationalists and republicans alike, across social class and throughout all districts but especially west of the Bann where the affective memory of unionist thuggery is strong.

  • woodkerne

    And the lesson (too late) for the learning? accommodate difference or, or what? Carry on like the Viking King Canute, endeavoring to hold back the inexorable tide of history? Take to the hills or dig into the last ditch? Or, to use another analogy, finally realise you’re (the loyalists & unionists) on the forsaken end of an unrequited love with rump-Yookay?

  • Brendan Heading

    they’re the winners because they increased their vote more than any other party. They’re now one seat away from being the biggest party, when they were 10 seats away only 8 months ago.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    And again you dodge answering the question. Fine, noted.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    That’s improvement, not victory surely

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    Thanks for that .. I just get mindless abuse when I raise the issue on the newspaper blogs.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    The disunity of the Scottish Unionist parties prevents usurping the SNP..but it will come as in Quebec……same in Northern Ireland…but I think the latter are going to consolidate now they have the wake up call. They won’t make the same mistake twice and there will be an election before 2022.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    Oh and Doctor No ( Allister ) lost the DUP , 20,500 votes…an unwitting friend of SF this election.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    54 per cent voted for British parties….Unionist or other designation as Alliance prefer.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    More wishful thinking..many Protestants are in the non religious category..look at Claire with her boyfriend…

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    And SF policy on abortion and ss marriage shifted a few Catholics to DUP.>

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    No mutual respect ..acknowledging one million Britons in NI can be both British and Irish. You can’t see the log in your own eyes.

  • Gingray

    Doh! Very true

  • Gingray

    Indeed, my bad. I do agree Scotland has problems, but they are many of the same problems faced by the western nations, and things appear no worse than in other parts of the UK or Europe.

  • Gingray

    Lost the DUP? Thats like saying that the DUP lost the UUP votes back when they opposed them, nonsense!

    Particularly in a system of preferrential votes and over 80% of TUV votes appear to have preferences DUP at some point or another.

  • Ciaran Caughey

    Of course.My family would never vote for Sinn Fein and my father was Vice President in the 60’s.

  • Fear Éireannach

    No responsible voter could give a high preference to a party who voted recently in Westminster not to take the GFA into account in Brexit

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Looking in from the outside, the self-reinforcing narrative loops of political nationalist expectation are phenomenal. I think they really persuade themselves of this stuff, so much so it starts to feel like factual truth to them. It has long been thus. Events keep confounding their confident predictions of imminent paradise, but few make any adjustment or question their assumptions. Fine by me, it’s to their disadvantage.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    and a personal insult to boot … back of the net 🙂

  • leoinlisbon

    ‘things appear no worse than in other parts of the UK’

    On the contrary, there is, what is known as the ‘Glasgow Effect.’ This is widely recognized by those studying health and social problems.
    Put crudely, it states that Glasgow’s problems are significantly worse than those of similar sized UK cities.