Could a DUP Victory in North Belfast Paradoxically aid Remain?

Dr Adam Fusco is a Associate Lecturer in Politics at the University of York

As the polls stand the result of 2019 general election is predicted to be an overall Conservative majority. However, a hung parliament is not ruled out from the realms of possibility. In such a scenario the Conservative and Labour parties will be attempting to gain as much support from others to form a government. The tacit Remain alliance that has emerged in Northern Ireland in advance of the election has seen the SDLP and Green Party stand aside in North Belfast, with their assumption being that Sinn Féin are the party best placed to defeat the DUP’s Nigel Dodds and advance the anti-Brexit cause. There is a paradox, however, that under certain conditions a DUP victory in North Belfast might in fact aid the cause of Remain. This depends on the mathematics of a potential hung parliament.

If we assume for the purpose of argument on December 12th Sinn Féin return their 7 MPs elected in 2017 plus Finucane in North Belfast, this means that the number of votes required for a majority in the House of Commons is 319. This calculated by subtracting the 8 SF abstainers and 4 for the speaker and his deputies, divided by two: (1) 650 – 8 – 4 = 638; (2) 638 / 2 = 319.

If the DUP were to retain North Belfast, however, 320 votes would be required for a majority: (1) 650 – 7 – 4 = 639; (2) 639 / 2 = 319.5, rounded up to 320 (as was the case during the parliament elected in 2017). This means that if the Tories are returned as the largest party without an overall majority, they would require an extra vote to pass the government’s withdrawal agreement with a DUP victory in North Belfast.

For instance, if the Tories returned 317 MPs (as they did in 2017) they would require 2 additional votes if SF were to win North Belfast, whereas they would require 3 if the DUP retained the seat.

At present the DUP are still signalling their opposition to the government’s withdrawal deal, which suggests that under the scenario outlined above a SF victory makes it easier, rather than harder, for the Conservatives to pass their withdrawal bill, assuming Conservative party discipline can be maintained and Labour rebels won over. However, conversely, were the Conservatives to win an overall majority, a SF victory in North Belfast would symbolically signal opposition in Northern Ireland.

Therefore, the paradox of a DUP victory in North Belfast aiding Remain depends on how well or badly the Conservative party performs in the general election. If the Conservatives (1) were to perform very badly, although perhaps still being the largest party without a majority, this potentially allows the Labour Party to cobble together support to form a minority administration. Although not impossible, DUP support is unlikely to be forthcoming under such a scenario and therefore in these circumstances a SF victory in North Belfast is unlikely to damage the Remain cause. However, (2) if the Conservatives were to lose narrowly in the scenario outlined above, Johnson is less likely to seek out the support of the DUP – who oppose his deal – and try to win over a handful of Labour rebels. In this scenario the DUP’s opposition paradoxically aids the Remain cause, as Johnson’s failure to pass his deal potentially allows for a Corbyn administration to renegotiate a deal which would be put to referendum against Remain. The DUP may be willing to stomach this if a UK-wide customs union is what prevents a de facto customs border in the Irish Sea. If (3) the Conservative level of failure is in-between the previous scenarios – in the range of 10-20 seats short of majority – the DUP and potentially the Brexit Party’s support becomes pivotal, as attracting such a number of Labour rebels would be a difficult task. Under such circumstances no-deal again becomes a political possibility.

Therefore, a Remain vote for SF in North Belfast – unlike a vote for a non-abstentionist Remain candidate in North Down, East and South Belfast – only delivers its desired outcome if the result of the general election is likely either to be very hung or an overall Conservative majority. Paradoxically, if the result is in-between, a DUP victory could well aid the cause of Remain. This complicates issues for tactical Remainers in North Belfast, as they will have to use their judgment on how to best cast their ballot, depending on what they believe to be the result of the general election for the UK as a whole. This could either be a vote for SF or the DUP, or neither. With the latter this is because there are reasons apart from Brexit which can reasonably inform voters’ choices and temper their views on for who they should vote in this contest. Therefore, with having a specific outcome in the general election in mind, tactical Remainers who neither wish to vote for SF or the DUP might also consider voting for the Alliance Party or spoiling their ballot with potentially no cost to Remain.

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