In a devastating election, is Northern Ireland the crack where the light gets in?

I spent last night watching the election with my da. As is customary, we allowed ourselves to hope for a decent Labour result, and were then crushed by the 10pm exit poll. We’ve been doing this on and off since Kinnock. We know how it goes. But the scale of defeat this time was breathtaking.

Rather than going to bed in despair, we decided to wait up for North Down – Northern Ireland’s first result. Stephen Farry was close they said. It turned out he was more than close. He won a majority of nearly 3,000 over the DUP, exceeding that of Sylvia Hermon.

That was the first spike of adrenaline. It was soon followed by reports of stonking majorities for Claire Hanna in South Belfast, Colum Eastwood in Foyle and the chance that John Finucane would flip North Belfast. All came to pass.

Alliance were making breakthroughs left, right and centre. Pun intended. Not quite enough for Naomi Long in East Belfast, who narrowly missed out, probably because the DUP’s Gavin Robinson is a pretty nice guy.

This election sent a very clear message to the DUP. Their Brexit strategy, such as it was, has spectacularly misfired. While they only lost two seats, huge majorities across Northern Ireland plummeted. The red white and blue wall is now seriously under pressure.

Despite retaining seven seats, Sinn Féin will not be feeling comfortable either. Abstentionism, while ideologically understandable, has become awkward to sell in practice.

For both parties, the lack of Stormont has become untenable. The public’s apathy at our stasis has now turned into desperation, anger and a genuine willingness to think and vote differently.

This is where the crack of light comes in. This election campaign was down and dirty in parts. It got personal. Some tried to harness fear to get the vote out. It was, on occasion, tinged with the vague threat of future violence. Directed against whom, god only knows.

But amidst this dirge, something was rising above. Candidates were genuinely thinking about how to appeal beyond their tribe. Unlikely relationships emerged. Parties stood aside. Different issues were prioritised. Primarily Brexit, but also the NHS. Around kitchen tables, conversations started to change. A lot of people questioned boundaries within themselves, and many were surprised by the answers.

The penny was beginning to drop that if we do the same thing, we get the same thing. And there’s barely a soul left in the north who wants to go on like this.

These new dynamics were reflected back to us by the new MPs. Claire Hanna mused on Talkback today that while some might see her win as simply a gain for nationalism, she sees it as an authentically cross-community effort. Stephen Farry noted the impact of the Green Party and others standing aside in North Down. Similarly John Finucane explicitly recognised the diverse nature of his support, and pledged to live up to the challenge.

The DUP have cast this cooperation as a pan-nationalist front. But this is not what it is. Remain, left, liberal and green people were actively casting around for a unionist candidate to root for. Sylvia Hermon could have been that unionist. If David Ervine was still with us, or if Dawn Purvis was still in politics, waves of support would have come their way. But the UUP called Brexit too late. Their liberal left hand didn’t know what the conservative right hand was doing. And in the end, they failed to convince. Nonetheless, liberal, left and Remain type unionists are a vital part of this new progressive turn, albeit forced to seek representation through different parties this time around.

And so, this election may be a turning point for us. I don’t remember a time where people in Northern Ireland have voted so flexibly. There was genuine movement across traditional communal lines, a genuine focus on bigger issues. The construct of orange and green is making less sense by the day.

But we also awakened to some starker realities.

The regions of the UK have fractured. England wants to get Brexit done. It has veered to the right, again. In a time of climate emergency and the breakdown of the welfare state, the English chose Johnson. A fridge-hiding strongman. A representation of everything careless and elitist.

Scotland wants something different. The SNP’s strong performance brings Indy2 right back to the table. Scotland may now choose to reorient its politics to European and Nordic axes rather than Anglo-American.

While discussion about a new Ireland is already happening here, Scottish independence would be an existential crisis for northern unionists and indeed the non-aligned. In Matthew O’Toole‘s words ‘ it is hard to see how Northern Ireland’s union with Britain can survive the end of Scotland’s’.

Of course Johnson may not want to concede another independence referendum. But it seems certain that, one way or another, Scotland will not be able to tolerate indefinite Tories.

And neither can we.

Another crack of light is that there have been many things that unite us lately, across the whole of Northern Ireland.

We do not like land or sea borders. We do not trust the Tories. Most English people are disinterested in us. Many English nationalists would actively like to get rid of Northern Ireland. Brexit is happening. We have been kicked out of bed, and nobody should gloat because this affects us all. But it is what it is, and the fragility of the union can no longer be ignored.

What also emerged in this election is how highly we value our public services. The NHS was one of the most talked about issues in Northern Ireland. We care about our nurses. Everyone now loves someone on a spiralling waiting list. We may not want to follow the path that England is now set to take. We may also want a better system than the Republic of Ireland. Whatever our constitutional preferences, we cannot gloss over this truth.

This election has also confirmed that we are weary with violence. Genuine unionist concerns about Brexit manifested themselves in some unsettling ways throughout the election. Whilst rightly wanting to include loyalists in the conversation, the narrative of a small minority was not challenged rigorously enough. This backfired for the DUP, who seemed uncomfortable at times, but who did not provide a strong counter-narrative. Threatening banners and aggressive literature galvanised people to vote the other way. 

Zooming out, our attitude to climate emergency has also shifted. Parties tripped over themselves to prove their green credentials. As Clare Bailey says, ‘a new Ireland is coming – her name is climate change.’ While the Green Party may have stood aside tactically in some seats for this election, their message was not far from people’s thoughts. And ironically, as we try to cope with the challenges of environmental breakdown over coming years, it may help focus minds on the future. You cannot mop up a flood with a flag.

This is not a Pollyanna hot take on why it’ll all be ok. Nothing is ok, and there will probably be chaos. But it is a statement of fact that the politics of the past here cannot hold. Those who rely on it cannot ultimately succeed. Those who tried new things in this election were rewarded. We need to come to a deep and profound realisation that – because of England’s Brexit – nothing in Northern Ireland can ever be the same again.

 

Image by Eike Mader on Flickr.