The Northern Ireland elections created worldwide news – sending shockwaves and denial through the British political class, and causing much simplistic media commentary about the province.
Sinn Fein only marginally increased their vote on the last Assembly elections. But they significantly moved into first place in the popular vote for the first time winning their highest ever Assembly vote; and at the same time an opinion poll in the Irish Republic showed them widening their lead over the two main traditional parties: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. All of which occurred on the weekend anniversary of the funeral of Bobby Sands, H-Block protestor, who died in jail on hunger strike, and while incarcerated was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, that began the electoral journey of Sinn Fein to the present.
This is not what the British state intended Northern Ireland for. It was created as an entity to provide a 'Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State' as Unionist James Craig, the first ever Prime Minister of the province from 1921-40 said in 1934. The BBC's Lewis Goodall commented, when summarising the election results: 'Northern Ireland was literally designed, its borders were designed, so that wouldn't happen' – meaning the triumph of Sinn Fein and eclipsing of the Unionist parties.
The creation of Northern Ireland and the imposition of a border on the island of Ireland were not enough historically to maintain Protestant and Unionist dominance. What was also needed was the suppression and manipulation of democracy to create in the UK a real one-party state that denied civil rights and liberties to a huge part of the population.
One little known aspect of Northern Ireland's era of Stormont one-partyism from 1922-72 (when it was first suspended and then abolished) is that the province did not have one person one vote until 1968. That year saw the abolition of the university seats and voting and plural voting for business men (always men) alongside widespread voter suppression and gerrymandering to minimise Catholic and nationalist representation.
All of the above was undertaken with the collusion of the UK Government, which let the Northern Irish majority do as they liked until the late 1960s. It was only the ending of Protestant privilege and preferential treatment which brought the entire UK into the modern age – making the UK a political democracy in voting. But this isn't something which should fill the rest of the UK with pride, for such feudal privileges were only abolished in the rest of the UK in 1948 by the Attlee Government.
We are now in uncharted waters. Six decades after the Stormont state began to be dismantled, the Unionists have lost not just their majority of the vote and seats, but their historic place as the leading party of the province. Numerous consequences will flow from this in coming years.
Denialism has a very long tradition with regard to the province. Step forward as one example the UK Government, with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab claiming at the weekend that the union was safe as '58% of voters had supported pro-union parties'. In the next breath, he was talking about the supposed problem with the Northern Ireland protocol negotiated by Boris Johnson and David Frost with the EU, ignoring that, for all the DUP's protestations, a clear majority voted in the same election for pro-protocol parties.
Talking of denialism, the attitude of the DUP has contributed to their decline and defeat. A party which made its raison d'etre under Rev Ian Paisley of declaiming 'No Surrender' became under his leadership in his latter years renowned for its pragmatism and co-leadership in government with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness.
Despite this, oppositionalism remained core to the party, and as Unionist ascendancy has slipped away, they have grown more angry and defiant. They were for Brexit and then seemingly oblivious to Northern Ireland voting (like Scotland) to remain in the EU. When Theresa May destroyed her parliamentary majority in 2017 and left the DUP as powerbrokers, they continually over-played their hand. And since 2019, with the UK leaving the EU and the protocol coming into effect, they have backed themselves into a corner – in so doing exasperating a large part of the electorate who are the party's constituency, including elements of the middle class and business community.
Northern Ireland is continually seen through the prism of Protestant v. Catholic and Unionist v. Nationalist, but this was never the whole picture and gets less accurate by the day. The province, like everywhere in the UK, has experienced secularisation, the decline of religion and retreat of churches. And a bare majority of voters see themselves as either Unionist and Nationalist (53%), with nearly half the province thinking of themselves in other terms.
This shift has informed the rise of the Alliance Party who bravely take no position on the constitutional position of the province under the inspiring leadership of Naomi Long. They stand for the constituency which yearns to live in a normal place with normal politics, and concerns itself with issues which really matter such as the cost of living crisis. The Alliance not surprisingly just polled their highest ever Assembly vote and are a coming force. The main problem they face as they continue to grow is that Northern Ireland has never been and can never be completely 'normal'.
A border poll looks inevitable at some point but not in the next few years. Such is the lack of confidence in the UK Government in the case for the union in the province that they dare not do what could make strategic sense – call such a poll while the polls show there is still a pro-union majority.
It indicates that underneath the headline figures there is deep unease about the state of the union case and its representatives, and that their argument could begin to unravel even more in a referendum. Imagine, for example, a border poll in the next couple of years which resulted in (to pluck figures out of the air) 55:45 for the union. This would not strengthen Northern Ireland's place in the UK, but rather galvinise the pro-reunification forces, all of which must be in the calculations of the UK authorities.
All of this underlines that Ulster Unionism as we have known it and its present-day credo is a busted flush; a now minority tribe in retreat, confused, disorientated and looking for others to blame for their predicament: the UK Government, Irish authorities, Brussels, the US. As they lash out and blame everyone but themselves, they seem to have no positive agenda – either for Unionism or the province – and hence shouldn't find it surprising that voters increasingly reject them. There is related to this the ongoing fragmentation in the Unionist parties: the decline of the once dominant Ulster Unionist Party and the emergence of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice challenging the DUP.
The future of Northern Ireland will hopefully be decided by democratic decisions and not by shadowy men in the margins who yearn for a return to violence and indiscriminate killing and maiming. Once upon a time, the UK Government, for all its many imperfections and disastrous decisions in relation to Ireland, had an element of insight in its statecraft towards the province.
We saw from the 1970s onwards, endless initiatives in power-sharing between the two communities, the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, all leading up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The UK has, over this course, nurtured a consociational democracy (meaning institutionalised power sharing in government) to win legitimacy for devolution in both communities – which eventually has its limitations as the foothold of those groups weaken. And it also imbued a shared sovereignty between the UK and Irish Government which much to the chagrin of many Unionists built North-South and West-East relations in relation to the province.
Where is that level of insight, intelligence and innovation in statecraft today in the UK Government? Sadly, it is near to nowhere to be found. Part is the low-grade calibre and careless nature of the Boris Johnson administration – with its wanton vandalism, amorality and playing to its Brexit base on the protocol. But it is also about something longer-term: namely the decline of Tory unionism and its morphing into a populist, chameleon-like chancer Conservatism which may well long outlive the dire personal qualities of Johnson.
This is a problem for the people of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK because this issue is crying out for imagination and boldness. There is no foreseeable future which works in which Northern Ireland narrowly votes to reunify with the Republic; or indeed narrowly votes to remain with the UK.
Rather, there has to be a discussion about the relationships between the various constituent parts of the UK and the Republic. This could involve ultimately not the chimera of federalism often cited by Gordon Brown but like the Loch Ness monster never actually seen. Instead, arrangements which were confederal – between self-governing nations – giving a special dispensation to Northern Ireland and rights and guarantees to the Unionist community in the province in all-Irish arrangements alongside ones between the UK and Republic. Under these sort of arrangements, a version of Scottish independence would be possible with no connection to 'separatism', to allow for pan-UK and pan-Isles co-operation and institutions.
The above could be a very British kind of compromise including different traditions and communities in an over-arching architecture of shared sovereignty. It would draw from the UK understanding of the legacy of Empire and colonial retreat which is what we are dealing with in Ireland, while being modern, pluralist and adaptive.
Sadly, to get to this place, one political tradition is going to have to be defeated. That is the Tory (and to a lesser extent Labour) fixation on parliamentary sovereignty, undiluted, undivided central power and the Dicey fiction of 'the Crown in Parliament' which have come even more centrestage as a result of Brexit and the multiple crises and fissures of the UK.
Northern Ireland, in this sense, is held in a limbo by obstacles and conservative shibboleths which distort, harm and hold back the UK itself from being a modern, fully democratic country.