The recent Local Government Election in Northern Ireland may be judged by history to be one of the most consequential in the history of Northern Ireland. The five party leaders have experienced dramatically different fortunes, and the future for their parties diverges profoundly.

With some it is simple.

Sinn Fein did dramatically better than most people expected – perhaps they even surprised themselves. Alliance continued to strengthen and have even more firmly entrenched themselves as the only serious representation of the growing third cohort in what was traditionally seen as a ‘two communities’ system. Their leaders will be happy.

The SDLP continues to slide downhill with little prospect of reversal or revival and the once mighty Ulster Unionist Party seems to be going the same way as Brian Faulkner’s UPNI. Their leaders will have little to comfort them.

The situation of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP is a little more complex. He is secure as Leader, having comprehensively fought off the threat from the TUV, PUP, and UUP and, characteristic of the ‘in-Lodge’ thinking of unionism, he has claimed this as a victory. However, the position on the key issue of ‘the Union’ is disastrous for him and his supporters and from his comments one might be forgiven for thinking that he has not quite realised how catastrophic it is.  

As Nicholas Whyte pointed out (quoted in The Guardian) the unionist parties took 19,000 fewer votes than the nationalist parties. It is also clear from Sydney Elliott’s analysis of transfers (Newsletter, 17 May 2023) that while the Alliance Party’s policy position remains pro-union (but not unionist) many post-Brexit Alliance voters are now moving closer to the position of the SDLP, if not SF, than that of the unionists. There is a demographic shift that is proceeding irreversibly and this only increases as we go down the age profile. Unionist talk post-election has been all about getting the unionists together, but it is now too late for that. They no longer have the numbers, as Sam McBride pointed out in a Belfast Telegraph column.

The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was the last best hope for unionists, and they failed to build on it. They did not grasp that it was they, not Sinn Fein, who needed the Northern Ireland Assembly to work and for that to happen they needed to treat nationalists, as well as others, and even sometimes each other, more fairly and with more respect.   They now call for ‘respect’ from Republicans, but they provided little example of that when they were the dominant political force, even after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

For the first period of time after the establishment of the new Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998, I could observe from the Speaker’s chair the beginnings of some emerging political relationships across the great divide. The GFA had created both a model and some momentum that carried us through the early challenges. But as the mantle of leadership passed to the next generation, the process of relationship-building, limited as it was, faltered and stalled. I have not abandoned hope of the resumption of the Northern Ireland Assembly since I think that it could be a useful structure even in the context of a United Ireland.  

I have been saying for some time that, in the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the inevitable trajectory is towards de facto joint authority.   Recent political developments and the results of this election suggest that the pace of that trajectory has quickened markedly and even if there is a return to the Assembly, the ultimate outcome is neither in doubt nor perhaps will even be as much delayed as might have been imagined some years ago.

If the institutions of Strand 1 and Strand 2 (the Assembly and the North-South Executive Bodies) continue to be suspended, then the only part of the GFA that remains operational is Strand 3 (the British-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference).   This means increased London-Dublin cooperation, and that does not require any legislative change; it just requires the political will to deepen it.  The unionists will never be represented in the BIIGC, but after a future election in the South, perhaps even after the next election, Sinn Fein will be the Irish Government partner with the British Government.  

A key element in the picture, that seems to receive remarkably little attention in Northern Ireland, is the profound change in attitudes in England that I have observed since I first joined the House of Lords in 1996 – more than a quarter of a century ago.  There is now no emotional attachment to Northern Ireland.  Commentators on UK affairs regularly speak about the UK without any thought of, or reference to, the Northern Ireland component.  The BBC’s John Simpson recently remarked that the Union was now secure because of the implosion of the Scottish National Party.  The security of the Union with regard to Northern Ireland did not seem to enter his calculus.  Britain as a whole is already emotionally detached from Northern Ireland and if unionists think that this situation would be improved from their point of view by the election of a Labour Government, they are much mistaken.

An old Northern Ireland saying comes to mind – “It’s all over bar the shoutin’.”    

11 thoughts on “It’s all over bar the shoutin’

  1. Yes I believe that it’s about time reality must sink in. The writing is on the wall and in any décent democracy, the unionists of Northern Ireland should remain calm and accept the future and forget all about regretting their historical bullying type attitude . Lets al live together,,pave a brilliant future and economy and just get on with life side by side.

  2. The DUP has made one strategic blunder after another, accelerating the inexorable process of Irish reunification. They pushed for Brexit because they wanted the border back, and ended up with an Irish Sea border because they arrogantly underestimated the Irish government’s influence in Brussels and Washington. Unionism for years was about not rocking the boat and keeping the constitutional arrangement stable. That they decided to upend everything with the Brexit farce is mind-boggling, particularly when the demographics were going against them.

  3. Brexit changed everything. Either the North remained tied to Britain and its Little England mentality and economy, or it looked South and from there to the EU. It may close its eyes but that won’t change the direction of travel…

  4. Reality is beginning to sink in with some unionist. The plantation is coming to an end and the settlers are now in a minority.
    Time for them to accept the inevitable and salvage what they can.
    Their union is broken.

    1. My plantation settler father married a Dublin born protestant, so I’m ready to go either way, and certainly not following that sulking DUP leader.

  5. Unionists of DUP ilk have yet to understand that the Empire has gone, the Commonwealth is shrinking, Rome-rule in Dublin has gone, the Protestant majority has gone, and most of us do not attend church very often! The fundamentals upon which the DUP was built are gone!

  6. As to the Sydney Elliott analysis of transfers from Alliance first preference voters, is this not influenced by the negative and destructive behaviour deriving at this stage from the DUP as the main Unionist party ? This could be a bigger factor than constitutional preference.

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