There are certainties in Northern Ireland. Everyone goes on holiday in July. A single crash on the Westlink will halt traffic across the country. An Ulster Fry is the best breakfast. The final truth: politics follows a script, the same story over and over again. We have our moments but we tell people that nothing ever really changes.
May has been an extraordinary month for Northern Irish politics. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the past few weeks have turned the country on its head….but there’s been a shift in the wind. Lick your finger, hold it up to the air and you can sense it. In the local elections small, left leaning parties that identify as ‘other’ made a breakthrough. The Greens, People Before Profit and Alliance all made gains. The Ulster Unionists suffered significant losses in Belfast. The European Parliamentary Elections were expected to deliver a similar shock and they didn’t disappoint.
On the 23rd May 2019 Remain voters in Northern Ireland made their voices heard. Unsurprisingly, they aren’t happy.
“Tell them again.” That was the slogan used by the DUP during the European election. The phrase certainly resonated with voters and not in the way Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds intended. It’s been two and a half years since the 2016 referendum. In that time Remain voters in Northern Ireland have watched, with despair, as Theresa May’s government has pursued a hard Brexit. With the DUP elevated on the national stage via the confidence and supply agreement, the Tories have bent the ear to listen and blocked out everyone else.
Diane Dodds was elected on the first count in Magherafelt but the result for the Remain supporting parties was astonishing. Naomi Long was elected on the second count with 170,370 votes, Martina Anderson took the third seat with 152,436.5. For the first time since the 1970s, we have three women MEPs. The majority of them aren’t unionist.
Unlike the local elections, there isn’t much to unpack from the European Parliamentary vote. This was about Brexit. Unlike Britain, where the two main parties muddled about with an vague message, most of Northern Ireland’s political parties were very clear. This was about Leave versus Remain. Colum Eastwood even bought a bus.
Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Alliance and the Greens all support a second referendum. They are also in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement if Brexit can’t be stopped. The swing to Alliance, the level of support to all four remain parties, shows how strongly voters feel about this subject. Turnout in Northern Ireland was around 45% but it was even lower in Great Britain.
The failure to tap into the mood of the electorate is borne out in the result for the UUP’s Danny Kennedy. Kennedy is a Remainer, has voiced his opposition to a No Deal Brexit but is also against the backstop. Kennedy couldn’t articulate a clear vision for Northern Ireland post Brexit. He wasn’t in favour of a soft Brexit and voiced support for the Brady Amendment, a Brexit plan that got majority support in Parliament but has been rejected by the EU.
When Sinn Fein, Alliance, the Greens and the SDLP travelled to Brussels together, the UUP didn’t go with them. Voters noticed. When the four parties told their voters to transfer and bolster the Remain side, they didn’t mean the Ulster Unionists.
The UUP and DUP tried to strike a cord with unionist voters across Leave and Remain lines. This election was about the union, they said, and beat the old drum. It didn’t work as well as they thought. Jim Allister looked perplexed when he noted on the BBC that turnout in certain unionist areas was low.
While Remain has done well, the result for Diane Dodds can’t be ignored. There are still a large number of voters in Northern Ireland that back the DUP’s position. Some are also very supportive of Jim Allister and his hard-line stance. Left wing brexiteers may have stayed at home. After this election, the DUP has no reason to moderate its position on the backstop.
The significance of yesterday’s vote can’t be understated. Northern Ireland has come out strongly for Remain and endorsed the EU’s negotiating position. This will strengthen the hand of negotiators in pushing for the Withdrawal Agreement, the backstop and unique solutions for Northern Ireland.
The irony is that the vote will be ignored by the people currently vying to be Prime Minister. As John Campbell pointed out on Twitter, nearly every prospective Tory leadership candidate wants to go back to Brussels and negotiate the backstop. It hasn’t registered at all that Northern Ireland now has two Remain MEPs. With the Brexit Party doing so well at the polls, the Tories may not want a general election any time soon. If that’s the case, they’ll want to keep the DUP on side.
Despite the above, it’s hard not to feel hopeful after the past few weeks. I don’t agree with the view that you can’t be progressive if you’re nationalist or unionist but it’s great to see small, left leaning parties do well in such a rigid system. Northern Ireland has elected three women MEPs for the first time. Who would have thought that a party like Alliance, neither unionist or nationalist, could garner such a significant vote in a European Election.
All these things, the past few weeks, are a break in the tide, an odd step on a well trodden path. They’re important reminders that politics in Northern Ireland can surprise you.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.