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21 June 2017

The general election in Northern Ireland - what just happened?

The general election in Northern Ireland - what just happened?

It’s important to understand the recent Westminster election results in the wider political context and in light of the fact that it was the fourth time in just over a year the Northern Irish electorate turned out to vote.  

The assembly which was formed after the vote in May 2016 collapsed in January 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness, then deputy first minster, resigned. This was prompted, at least in part, by issues with a renewable heating incentive scheme which, reportedly, could cost the tax payer hundreds of millions of pounds in overspend during the next 20 years. This specific issue aside, the subsequent election in March 2017 was fought through the kicking around of many old political footballs. Depending on your views the Irish language act, dealing with the legacy of the past, same-sex marriage and the perennial constitutional question quickly became yardsticks by which to judge other parties.  

The EU referendum result and its direct impact on the border region of Northern Ireland is another area where huge questions remain unanswered. In Northern Ireland 56 per cent voted to remain in the EU and 44 per cent voted to leave. No matter how much the UK and specifically Northern Ireland would like a frictionless border with the Republic of Ireland, it now represents the only UK land border with an EU of which we will soon not be a part. Even if the UK and Ireland agree on a solution, there is no guarantee that the rest of the EU will agree. As across the UK, some local parties used the recent elections to re-fight the referendum. 

The assembly election on 2 March returned a nationalist majority for the first time since the state was formed in 1921. A period of talks followed for a few weeks but these were put on hold following Theresa May’s announcement of a snap election on 9 June. The surge in the "nationalist vote" in the assembly election was met/countered by a surge of "unionist votes" in the general election. I dislike and caveat heavily these popular terms because politics is never that simple, especially in Northern Ireland. And while the results could certainly be read as a return to the "tribal voting" of old, and this may be true for a season, there are many more complexities at play.  

However it is clear that in two years Northern Ireland representation at Westminster has gone from five parties and an independent MP to two parties and an independent MP. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) returned 10 MPs making gains from the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic Party and the Labour Party. Sinn Féin also took seats from both these parties to increase their own number of (abstentionist) MPs.  

It has not escaped notice that the DUP are in talks with the Conservative Party to help form or support a government. The public and media reaction outside of Northern Ireland to the party has confirmed that most people are unaware and/or uninformed about what happens in Northern Ireland. In this technological age, it’s easy to dig up bizarre stories and colourful personalities from any political party especially in Northern Ireland. Political parties and personalities will always divide opinion and there are many reasons why people may not align with the DUP. But it was their party policies on abortion and same-sex marriage which attracted most attention. While these positions may run contrary to many prevailing sensitivities outside Northern Ireland, they reflect widely-held views in the region and policies in socially conservative political parties across Europe, the West and majority world. 

 A larger question is around the realpolitik which we see being played out. It has been said that ‘politics is the art of the possible’ and we know globally that political decisions are often delivered in return for support or money. The people of Northern Ireland will be very glad to have additional funding for health or education and by nature of our history and geography there are very good reasons why Northern Ireland should still be considered a special case. That said, the perception of forming a government via special treatment for one region certainly raises ethical and democratic questions. This may cause impact on relationships with other devolved regions and the Barnett consequential. 

Locally concerns about the DUP power-sharing with the Conservatives has focused on impartiality and the perception of same. The British and Irish governments are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. Incidentally, the same issue could arise for Sinn Féin in the South where they could theoretically find themselves as a minority party in a government coalition in the next mandate.  

Martin McGuiness co-led the Northern Ireland Executive for the past ten years and many have commented on a shift in tone and posture from Sinn Féin following his death. With the hundredth anniversary of the partition of Ireland just four years away it is not surprising to see a more concerted return to what has always been Sinn Féin’s key priority, the reunification of Ireland. This will inevitably cause unionists to become more defensive and to retreat from anything perceived as a political risk, at least for a season.  

The absence of a local executive and the ongoing unpredictability of party talks, has added instability to an already fluid political situation. As we approach 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement and 100 since the partition of Ireland huge questions remain. And so in this moment wee Northern Ireland finds itself at the centre of a debate stretching right across Ireland, Great Britain and indeed Europe.  

But whether in times of certainty or uncertainty followers of Jesus continue to follow Jesus. Perfect love, perfect life and perfect truth. We will be aligned with a whole range of legitimate political, cultural and national identities on these islands. Christians will be found both at the heart of government and at the heart of dissent at the same time. Disagreement is natural and healthy in a plural society but we must stop and remind ourselves again that politics will never be our saviour nor our defining identity. Even in the midst of uncertainty we continue to serve at the pleasure of the king of kings, sent as His two-Corinthians-five ambassadors and carrying His light and authority. Be encouraged and be faithful.