On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Irish Unionists are nervous as vote patterns shift

The UK government stumbling towards a political accomodation with the Irish unionist DUP party comes at a time of increasing edginess for the unionist movement.

Voters in both the Republic of Ireland (Éire) and the UK region of Northern Ireland have been disturbing patterns of party support in recent elections.

One common trend in both jurisdictions has been the steady growth in the vote for nationalists Sinn Féin.

The party – once seen as untouchable by all other factions – has matured to now have actual governing experience in Northern Ireland, and close to opposition status in Éire.

In recent years Sinn Féin has become the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, therefore guaranteeing it a joint role in the special constitutional arrangements for political compromise in force in the North.

Sinn Féin also became the third-largest party in the Republic in the deeply divided elections of April 2016, making it effectively a second opposition bench in the Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann.

Both jurisdictions have vibrant multi-party political climates, with five Northern parties enjoying significant voter support and four doing so in the Republic, although two have historically been larger than the others. Independent candidates winning elections are also not uncommon in both jurisdictions.

In April 2016 the Éire governing coalition of Fine Gael and Labour lost its majority, with the opposition Fianna Fail party, Sinn Féin and a variety of independents winning seats. The result left no obvious combination or parties that could claim government.

In this complex and awkward political situation, Fine Gael have remained in office due to the Fianna Fail opposition taking the unusual stance of opposing them politically while declining to vote for no-confidence motions.

Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny has eased the tensions by retiring, to be replaced in coming days by newly elected party leader Leo Varadkar.

The election of the new Northern Ireland Assembly in March this year saw the DUP and Sinn Féin again elected as the largest parties of each of the unionist and nationalist communities. They are therefore obliged to agree on forming the special joint ministry to form a regional government.

The results of the UK House of Commons election last Thursday – the only major election in Ireland conducted using first-past-the-post voting  – also saw both the DUP and Sinn Féin gain supporters at the expense of the other smaller parties. The DUP now hold 10 of the 18 seats and Sinn Féin 7, with the Ulster Unionists (UUP) and the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) losing all the Commons seats they formerly held.

Last week’s result is thus unusual for any Irish election, in that first-past-the-post voting  has this time distorted the mixed community viewpoints to cause just two parties (as well as one well-established independent MP) to hold the House of Commons seats.

The DUP’s vote in Northern Ireland has consolidated in recent elections. At the first elections for the regional Assembly in 1998 they won the support of just 12% of those registered to vote.

Last week that share of the community had risen to 23%. With turnouts of around two-thirds of voters, that made for 36% of the vote on the day, which was distorted by FPTP to win the party 10 out of the region’s 18 Commons seats.

However the DUP’s growing support has come largely from cannibalizing support for the other unionist party, UUP.

Net unionist party turner-out-to-vote support at elections stood at 34% of registered voters in 1998, before steadily declining to around 23% from 2010 to 2016.

This year unionist voter turnout has abruptly risen again, reaching 27% at the Assembly elections in March and 29% at last week’s Commons elections.

Despite that return of support, at the Assembly elections in March total voters supporting unionist parties stood at its lowest relative level ever – 44% of turned-out voters – with nationalist parties reaching 40%.

Sinn Féin’s active electoral support in the community has also indeed grown steadily, from 12% of registered voters in 1998 to 19% last week.

In this tense climate the DUP were already mulling their political options, and will be delighted that another one has abruptly come into existence, with the national Conservatives now needing their support to govern the UK.

The role of the national government as a broker in Northern Irish power-sharing discussions is also suddenly highly questionable. Whether the DUP and Sinn Féin can now agree on forming a new regional administration will be one of the first political questions ending to be addressed by the new government.

After a bitter recent election campaign, Sinn Féin have demanded that DUP leader Arlene Foster step down before a joint government will be agreed to. Theresa May and her envoys will need to juggle this demand with actual negotiations with Foster over the fate of her own government. Something will have to give somewhere.

Complicating matters further, Sinn Féin House of Commons candidates elected in Northern Ireland have long refused to take up their seats, following a long-standing policy of ‘abstentionism’ to highlight their opposition to British authority over Ulster.

Sinn Féin supporters, aware of this stance for decades, have regularly re-elected Sinn Féin candidates, and have actually increased their number from 4 to 7 at last week’s election.

Party leaders have confirmed in recent days that nothing has changed about the abstentionism position because of this national election result. Sinn Féin’s 7 votes would not be deal-breaking in the overall Commons balance of power in any case, so there is little temptation to abandon the passionately-held policy.


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