Every so often, something happens in Northern Ireland which compels mainland commentators who normally pay the Province no attention to venture a take on its politics. This is unfortunate.
Sinn Fein emerging from last week’s Stormont elections as the largest party in the Assembly is just such an occasion, and has given rise to some truly woeful contributions to the discourse. For example, here’s Piers Morgan:
I don’t think people fully understand the consequences of Sinn Fein’s success. We’re witnessing the impending and I think now inevitable collapse of the United Kingdom..
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) May 8, 2022
The main thing this tweet tells us is that prominent amongst the people who do not “fully understand the consequences of Sinn Fein’s success” stands Morgan himself.
But his is merely a lamentably high-profile instance of a common mistake, and it’s a mistake which is not only fundamentally wrong but if anything makes the actual situation in Northern Ireland worse than it needs to be.
With Ulster looking set to remain in the headlines for some time – at least until the hot-take flying column gets bored and moves on – let’s take a look at what actually happened and what the possible implications are.
There is no doubt that Sinn Fein emerging as the largest party in Stormont is a significant moment that will provide a real stress-test of the institutions which have intermittently governed (or at least, presided over) Northern Ireland for the past quarter-century.
But in terms of the actual election, the picture is not what one might expect from excitable headlines. The republicans went into the election with 27 seats and came out with… 27 seats.
Meanwhile the SDLP, the smaller party for voters who like their nationalism unconnected to terrorism, lost four seats and returned only eight MLAs.
That’s an overall loss of four for officially nationalist parties and an overall count 35 MLAs.
(People Before Profit, who designate as ‘Other’ but favour merging with the Republic, held their one.)
On the Unionist side, the Democratic Unionists lost three seats, slipping from 28 to 25. The Ulster Unionists lost one to return nine MLAs, the Traditional Unionist Voice kept their one, two Independent Unionists were returned, and one ex-DUP MLA was returned as a third Independent Unionist.
That’s an overall loss of three seats, and a caucus of 38 MLAs. Which, whilst not great, is still bigger.
So why does Sinn Fein get to nominate the First Minister?
Under the original terms of the Belfast Agreement (which is hallowed except when it’s not), they wouldn’t: that privilege went to the largest designation, Unionist or Nationalist.
However, in 2007 the DUP and Sinn Fein conspired to stitch up the Province’s electoral system, and Peter Hain, then the Northern Irish Secretary, allowed them to do it. They did this by changing the rules in the St Andrews Agreement so that the privilege fell to the largest party.
This meant that instead of voters being able to safely choose between different Unionist and Nationalist options without undermining their own team, as it were, it was suddenly imperative to pile in behind the biggest parties to keep the other lot away from the (purely symbolic) post of First Minister. The UUP and SDLP have predictably suffered since.
Will there be a new Executive?
Under the power-sharing provisions laid down in the Belfast Agreement, both sides need to agree to serve for the devolved government to function. This is why Stormont falls over so often.
At present, the DUP have indicated that they are open to nominating a Deputy (in reality, co-) First Minister… but only if the Government delivers real movement on the Protocol. Which the Government has not yet shown much sign of doing.
The Protocol strikes at the heart of the promises underpinning the Belfast Agreement because, in the eyes of most unionists (even those more inclined to ‘make it work’), it has changed Northern Ireland’s constitutional status vis-à-vis the rest of the United Kingdom, not least by overruling the Act of Union, without a referendum.
It’s proper operation would also have the effect of forcibly re-orienting the Province’s economy away from Britain towards Ireland and the European Union, a fact Michael Gove all but conceded in the Commons. It is worth remembering that the current backlash and instability would be much worse had the Government not subsequently acted to unilaterally extend ‘grace periods’ which protect east/west trade.
This has the potential to be a much more dangerous crisis for Stormont than previous ones because this time, the recalcitrants aren’t holding out for something a unwise Secretary of State looking for good photos and cheap headlines (the witless Hain, et al) can simply hand them in return for a quiet life – at least not without controversial legislation.
Without that change, either the DUP backs down or the Executive stays shut.
What happens then?
Nothing much, at first. Westminster does not take its duty to provide order and good government (as opposed to merely peace) to its citizens in Northern Ireland especially seriously, and in recent times has striven very hard to avoid having to govern the place if it can possibly help it, even if no other government is available.
Under changes negotiated during Julian Smith’s stint at the Northern Ireland Office, the previous Executive will simply stagger on for some weeks (although unless the DUP agree to go back into it, it can’t actually do all that much). When that clock eventually runs out, there will be another election.
If that doesn’t change anything, then at some point the Government will have to implement direct rule, whereby the Province is basically administered by the Secretary of State and the NIO. This would require legislation at Westminster to implement.
So does any of this mean a ‘united Ireland’ is imminent?
In fact, suggesting it does both betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the Belfast Agreement and, if amplified by foghorns as loud as Morgan, actually undermines the proper function of the devolved settlement in Ulster.
First, one of the consequences of the Agreement is that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland no longer hangs on election results. The Secretary of State will only authorise a referendum if they believe there is clear and consistent evidence the nationalists would win. (There is no such evidence as yet, not even close.)
The parties I dub ‘capital-U Unionist’ have not adapted to this reality, with the DUP in particular having lapsed into a stagnant offer aimed at mobilising their base.
Lacking a compelling alternative in the UUP, more and more broadly pro-UK voters have either stayed at home or, more recently, switched in droves to the Alliance Party, which is formally neutral on the constitution but whose electoral strength in the east of Northern Ireland betrays its liberal unionist roots.
As recently as the 2016 election, the Unionist bloc stood at 55 seats (DUP 38, UUP 16, TUV one) versus a Nationalist bloc of 40 (SF 28, SDLP 12). The makeup of the electorate hasn’t changed fundamentally since then, nor is there been a big swing towards support for ending the Union.
What has happened is that Sinn Fein have done a good job of consolidating their hold on the Nationalist vote, whilst the DUP have alienated a lot of Unionist voters. Where have they gone? In 2016 the Alliance returned eight MLAs; last week it was 17.
This is a healthy development. The keep-them-out politics fostered by St Andrews is toxic, and voters need to feel more comfortable switching parties if Northern Ireland is ever to have a better politics. Politicians on both sides also need to be able to work with the other on day-to-day governance issues without worrying that they’re somehow betraying the cause.
Which is why when clueless commentators declare that this result represents a big step towards breaking up the United Kingdom, they are not just wrong but directly abetting the most regressive elements of Northern Irish politics.
So stop it, please.