The elections and the Protocol. A United Ireland is no nearer, but Northern Ireland is more unstable.

10 May

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:

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.

The results

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?

No.

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.

Live Blog: With most councils declared, Welsh Conservative losses exceed those in Scotland

6 May

19.00

  • With 18 out of 22 councils declared, the Welsh Conservatives have now lost 67 seats whilst Labour have picked up 63. It’s a brutal result: they actually lost more councillors than their counterparts in Scotland, which is not what one might have expected reading the pre-election predictions.
  • Meanwhile the recriminations have already started north of the border, with Paul Hutcheon of the Daily Record suggesting that these results might finish off Douglas Ross’s leadership of the Scottish Conservatives.
  • His defenders (see Ruth Davidson) below can point to the national picture, but his critics can rightly argue that he needs to own his decision to u-turn on demanding Boris Johnson resign over Partygate. As I noted in January, his ability to send a letter of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady was a good advertisement for a united, national party. Why the change of course?
  • Behind that, the grim reality that the scandal-ridden SNP has just posted its best-ever local government performance.
  • Meanwhile results from Northern Ireland are continuing to trickle in (SF 16, UUP 3, DUP 2, APNI 2, SDLP 1, Oth 1), but we’re going to call it a day on this live blog. Thank you for following along!

18.00

  • Not only have the Conservatives lost control of Monmouthshire, their only Welsh council, but Labour are now the largest party for the first time since 1995. The Conservatives lost 12 seats, falling to 18.
  • Counting in Scotland is complete: the Tories lost 62 councillors in total, and were overtaken by Labour. Both Labour and the Nationalists gained one council each.
  • In Northern Ireland, Doug Beattie, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, has told reporters that he will continue in post “until his colleagues say otherwise”. Currently the results reflect Sinn Fein’s position as the strongest single party even more strongly than before: they have elected 15 MLAs, and no other party has yet more than two.

17.30

  • Douglas Ross isn’t actually having the worst day of the Scottish leaders: not a single candidate for Alba, the separatist group launched by Alex Salmond after his split from the SNP, has been elected.
  • It looks as if the Nationalists will be able to cling on to Glasgow Council, after edging out Labour by a single seat.
  • However, the bad news for the Tories keeps coming: they’ve apparently lost half their seats on Edinburgh Council, and been overtaken by the Greens in the process.
  • Meanwhile in Wales, Plaid Cymru have picked up Anglesey. The corresponding Westminster constituency, Ynys Môn, is currently held by the Conservatives.

17.00

  • In Wales, the Conservatives are now down 28 seats on last time, and Labour up 30. Plaid’s early surge has evened out a little, and they’re only up five seats – although both they and Labour have picked up a council.
  • Scotland has the Tories down 60 seats. Labour are up 17, the Lib Dems 21, the SNP 24, and the Greens 15. This has been a very tough day for Douglas Ross, just one year after he defied expectations to hold every Conservative seat at Holyrood and deny Sturgeon a majority. Ruth Davidson, like my sources in Wales, pins the blame on the national picture.
  • Northern Ireland currently has the following MLA totals: Sinn Fein ten, DUP two, Alliance two, UUP one, Others one. We can only hope that ratio is an artefact of the declarations!

16.30

  • Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, has been elected to the Assembly. However, he apparently won’t commit to resigning his seat at Westminster in order to sit there. Apparently he will meet with DUP officers to decide the ‘best way forward’.
  • Meanwhile the Welsh Conservatives I’m speaking two are giving mixed signals on whether or not they expected things to be this bad (outwith Monmouthshire, which all agree is a surprise). Sources say that events at Westminster have “dominated” the campaign.
  • The latest scores from the BBC have the Conservatives down 22 seats in Wales and 53 in Scotland, with Labour up 28 and 16 respectively.
  • Depressingly, the SNP are up 22 councillors on last time. Whatever one’s stance on the constitutional question, it is extraordinary to see a government performing so badly secure such a result.

15.30

  • The Democratic Unionists have said that “the door is open” to Alex Easton, the Independent Unionist MLA who has topped the poll in North Down. He previously quit the party over a lack of “respect, discipline or decency” in its conduct. This will be significant if the DUP runs Sinn Fein close on the seat count; if Easton would make the different on a Unionist First Minister, the pressure would be immense.
  • Meanwhile early reports of pressure on the smaller parties seem to be holding up, according to the News Letter it looks as if Roy Beggs, a UUP veteran who has served in the Assembly since 1998, may not retain his seat. Mike Nesbitt, their former leader, is also apparently fighting to stay in Stormont in the face of a “TUV surge”.

15.00

  • In yesterday’s column, I reported predictions that Plaid Cymru might have a disappointing day today. It isn’t the case so far – the nationalists are up on seats and have taken overall control of a council.
  • Meanwhile the BBC reports that Vale of Glamorgan, which the Conservatives controlled from 2017 to 2019, is “too close to call”. If they take it, it will make the poor outcome in usually-solid Monmouthshire all the stranger. However, the Tories are apparently facing an uphill battle in the north-east, where they won big in 2019 and have been running several councils in coalition.
  • In Northern Ireland, the Alliance surge continues as the party tops the poll in Strangford, a solidly unionist seat in the east of the Province. They have thus returned the first MLA of 2022.

14.00

  • So far the Scottish results seem good for everyone except the Conservatives (and Independents), with the Nationalists, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and Greens all up on the last election whilst the Tories have lost 21 seats.
  • In Wales, Plaid Cymru have picked up a seat to take overall control of Gwynedd, whilst the Conservatives are now apparently braced for a “convincing defeat” in Monmouthshire.
  • Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, it looks as if Alex Easton, an Independent Unionist and former DUP MLA, is set to top the poll, continuing that constituency’s decades-long habit of returning independent or minor-party representatives.

13.30

  • Yesterday, I mentioned in my column that the forecasts didn’t seem too bad for the Conservatives in Wales. That may have been too optimistic: the BBC reports that David RT Davies fears that Monmouthshire Council – the only one under overall Tory control – is too close to call.
  • More bad news for the Party in Scotland too, where it has so far returned only one of the councillors it returned in Glasgow last time, whilst three have lost their seats.
  • But Wales hasn’t been too kind to Labour either: the leader of Caerphilly Council was unseated in what the BBC has called a “massive defeat”.
  • Scotland continues to be kinder: the party has managed to scoop West Dunbartonshire council from No Overall Control. This is the stomping ground of Jackie Baillie, their combative deputy leader, who’s holding her marginal seat at last year’s Holyrood elections stymied Nicola Sturgeon’s push for an overall majority.

13.00

  • We’re starting to get results in from Scotland, and so far they do seem to bear out the predictions that Labour will come second across the country (every local authority is getting elected today). There has also been good news for the (pro-independence) Scottish Greens, who have posted a couple of “absolutely astonishing” results.
  • Also, a reminder that the implications of the Northern Irish result may be more complex than at first glance: it’s perfectly possible that Sinn Fein could edge out the DUP whilst the overall pro-UK vote holds up better than the nationalist one. Under the original rules of the Belfast Agreement, this would have meant a Unionist would be nominated as First Minister.

12.30

  • So far, the main chatter out of Northern Ireland is about the surge in support for the Alliance Party. This is the party which doesn’t formally designate as either nationalist or unionist and, despite its origins as a ‘liberal unionist’ option, has no official stance on the question of the Province’s sovereignty.
  • This seems to have come not just at the expense of the DUP, who risk getting pipped to second place, but also the smaller Ulster Unionist Party and SDLP; the latter’s deputy leader is reportedly in trouble, and some analysts are suggesting one or both may not even qualify for a post in the next executive.
  • By contrast, the harder-line Traditional Unionist Voice seem to be optimistic about expanding their presence in the Assembly. At present only Jim Allister, their leader and a former DUP MEP, holds a seat.

12.00

Henry Hill reporting.

Good afternoon! The local elections in England are well underway, but there are also local contests in Scotland and Wales and a pivotal election for the Northern Ireland Assembly being counted today. We’ll be bringing you the results as they come in!

  • I did a run-down of what is expected to happen in each nation in yesterday’s Red, White, and Blue column. In sum, it looks as if Labour are going to do well in Scotland and Wales, and the Tories badly in Scotland but OK in Wales. (Recriminations in Scotland are underway, see tweet.)
  • Should the polls be right, Sinn Fein are heading for a historic first-placed win in Northern Ireland, which – thanks to rules changes the DUP agitated for – will give them the right to nominate the strictly titular but symbolically important post of First Minister. I wrote a bit about what this means for Unionism this morning.
  • As for the timings, we’re apparently expecting the first Welsh councils to declare around 2pm (Wales Online has a full list of the timings) and the first Scottish ones at about 12.30 (ditto the Daily Record). Northern Irish results will also start coming in this afternoon.

Henry Hill: As voters go to the polls in Northern Ireland, the DUP is fighting for second

5 May

As voters go to the polls in Northern Ireland today, the last round of projections makes grim reading for the capital-U unionist parties.

The News Letter reports that Sinn Fein is on 26.6 per cent, according to a University of Liverpool survey, with the Democratic Unionists languishing neck-and-neck with the Alliance Party on 18 per cent.

If borne out, this would not only see the republicans comfortably the largest party at Stormont – and thus entitled to nominate the symbolically-important post of First Minister – but could see the border-neutral Alliance as the second-largest party.

This latter point has prompted some to speculate that Naomi Long could be nominated as ‘deputy’ (in reality co-) First Minister. But this is not the case: the right to nominate falls to the largest party in the second largest designation, and there are not many ‘Other’ MLAs outwith the APNI itself.

Indeed, it could yet be that the Unionists remain the largest designation overall, as their vote is divided between three significant parties (the DUP, Ulster Unionists, and Traditional Unionist Voice) versus just two (Sinn Fein and the SDLP) on the nationalist side.

Should this happen, it will see all of unionism paying the price for the DUP/Sinn Fein stitch up of Stormont which New Labour signed off on in 2007. This saw the right to nominate the FM/DFM transferred from the largest and second-largest designation (thus allowing voters to move between parties) to the largest party in each designation, encouraging voters to pile in behind the biggest to keep the other lot out.

This comes amidst the revelation that Sinn Fein has been reaching out to groups linked with dissident republicans in its efforts to secure a border poll. The party apparently wrote to Saoradh, which is allegedly connected to the New IRA – the group linked to the murder in 2019 of the journalist Lyra McKee.

Both the UUP and the TUV meanwhile will be hoping to benefit from a major DUP setback, with the latter’s leader, Jim Allister, apparently hopeful that he won’t be his party’s only MLA in the next assembly.

These polls will also be causing as much discomfort in Whitehall as in DUP headquarters; whilst the working relationship between the Conservatives and the DUP is not what it once was, the Northern Irish Office know that the outcome most likely to lead to the straightforward creation of a new executive is the latter holding on to the top spot and their claim to the First Minister’s fiction.

If not, it could be a long few months for Brandon Lewis as Northern Ireland lurches through the extensive procedures it has for when its government isn’t functioning. These include weeks of delay whilst the previous executive holds on, then another election, and in the last resort direct rule – although this would require emergency legislation at Westminster.

A good night for Labour?

On the mainland, the situation in the local elections seems positive for Labour in both Scotland and Wales. According to Wales Online, the party is on track to pick up four councils in Wales today.

It doesn’t seem to be bad news for the Conservatives though, who are reportedly on track to hold on to the only council they have under overall control (Monmouthshire) and potentially retake control in Vale of Glamorgan too. (We covered in a previous column how the Party is running a record number of candidates.)

Plaid Cymru is predicted to have a bad night, losing 42 seats and control of Carmarthenshire council, where it governs with the help of independents.

In Scotland meanwhile, Labour look set to retake second place as the popularity of senior Conservatives “plummets” in the take of Partygate, the Scotsman reports. Their poll puts the Tories on 18 per cent, with Labour comfortably ahead on 25 per cent.

One expert interviewed by the Times suggests that this will not necessarily lead to many councils changing hands, but will allow Labour to take their claim to being once against Scotland’s second political force.

Meanwhile Douglas Ross seems to have run into difficulty over whether or not the British Government should release its legal advice on the question of another referendum on independence. This comes after the Scottish Government recently lost a transparency case over its own advice, as mentioned in last week’s column.

He has also stuck to his new, conciliatory line on Boris Johnson, insisting the Prime Minister is “fit for office”.

Unfortunately, despite the litany of failures we looked at last week, Scottish politics remains polarised around the constitutional question and the SNP look set to take about 45 per cent of the vote – their losing share in 2014.

The SNP bad news section

A lot to cover with the elections this week so we’ll do a whistle-stop tour: SNP MP apologises after breaking booze ban on ScotRail train; Nichola Sturgeon blames the war in Ukraine for the census fiasco (but insists it won’t delay independence because priorities); she refuses to apologise over the ferry scandal…

*breathe in*

…the Financial Reporting Council announced an investigation into an accountancy firm linked to a steelworks which got a potentially unlawful cash guarantee from the Scottish Government; and an ex-SNP MP accused of defrauding a separatist group of £25,000 has told a court she didn’t keep her receipts (which seems to be a common bad habit amongst the Nationalists).

Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling shows a swing to the Union. But nationalists feel events are heading their way.

13 Dec

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

Two years ago, my polling found a wafer-thin majority among Northern Ireland’s voters for unification with the Republic. My latest research, published today, shows a clear swing back towards remaining in the United Kingdom – an echo of the fall in support in recent months for Scottish independence.

But as I also found in my survey of over 3,000 voters and focus group discussions throughout the province, it is the nationalists who feel things are heading their way.

Unification, or the Union?

Asked how they would vote in a referendum or “border poll” tomorrow, 49 per cent said they would vote to stay in the UK, 41 per cent said they would choose a united Ireland, and one in ten said they were undecided: a majority of 54 per cent to 46 per cent for the Union among those voting.

While more than 19 out of 20 DUP and Sinn Féin voters backed the UK and unification respectively, SDLP ones backed a united Ireland by 56 per cent to 12 per cent, with nearly one in three saying they didn’t know.

Four in ten Alliance voters were undecided, with the remainder backing Irish unification by 35 per cent to 25 per cent. Support for a united Ireland declined sharply with age: 71 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 said they would choose unification with the Republic.

More than a quarter (27 per cent) of voters said they had changed their mind as to whether Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, including 16 per cent saying they had done so more than once. More than three in 10 women, 38 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 71 per cent of those who described themselves as neutral on the constitution said they had changed their mind at least once. Protestants (86 per cent) were more likely than Catholics (64 per cent) to say they had never changed their view on the matter.

What would the result be tomorrow – and in 10 years?

More than 6 in 10 (63 per cent) said they thought Northern Ireland would vote to stay in the UK in a referendum tomorrow – but by 51 per cent to 34 per cent, they thought a border poll in ten years’ time would produce a majority for a united Ireland.

While nine in ten unionists thought voters would choose the UK in an immediate border poll, only 64 per cent thought this would be the outcome a decade from now. More than three quarters of SDLP voters and 95 per cent of Sinn Féin supporters said they thought a referendum in 10 years would result in a united Ireland.

The longer view

Looking at the longer term, just over half (52 per cent) of all voters said they expected Northern Ireland still to be part of the UK in ten years’ time. However, only 36 per cent thought this would still be the case in 20 years, and only 25 per cent in 50 years.

While nationalists overwhelmingly expected Northern Ireland to be out of the UK within 20 years, two thirds (67 per cent) of unionists thought they would still be part of the Union at that stage. However, fewer than half (47 per cent) of unionists thought the status quo would still prevail in 50 years; 23 per cent said they thought Ulster would have left by then, and 30 per cent said they didn’t know.

What would be different in a united Ireland?

Voters as a whole were more likely to think that food and energy prices, housing costs, tax rates and unemployment (but also business investment) would be higher in a united Ireland than that they would be lower. Public spending and welfare benefits were thought more likely to be lower than higher.

 

By a small margin, voters thought equality and “parity of esteem” for different communities would be better in a united Ireland rather than worse – though 78 per cent of unionists thought the opposite. Overall, more thought the standard of living for most people was more likely to be worse in a united Ireland than better.

In focus group discussions, it was clear that these considerations weighed heavily with many voters. Those who liked the idea of Irish unity in principle often mentioned the cost of living and healthcare charges as balancing factors.

What do Westminster and Dublin want?

Northern Ireland voters were more likely to think the Westminster government would like to see the province leave the UK than that it would prefer it to stay. Only just over one in ten (11 per cent), and only just over half (56 per cent) of unionists, thought Westminster very much wanted to keep Ulster in the Union. A quarter thought the UK government didn’t mind either way, while more than four in ten thought it would prefer (26 per cent) or very much wanted (16 per cent) for Northern Ireland to leave.

In our focus groups, voters on all sides said they thought Northern Ireland was an “inconvenience” or an “afterthought” for the rest of the UK. The “levelling up” agenda seemed to apply to the north of England, rather than anywhere further afield.

At the same time, only just over half (52 per cent) of Northern Ireland voters thought the Irish government in Dublin would either prefer (38 per cent) or very much wanted (14 per cent) for Ulster to join the Republic in a united Ireland. Two thirds of nationalists thought Dublin would like to see a united Ireland, compared to just under half (46 per cent) of unionists.

Brexit and the Protocol

A clear majority (63 per cent, including 19 per cent of those who had voted Leave) said they thought leaving the EU had been the wrong decision as far as Northern Ireland was concerned. Two thirds of unionists thought it had been the right decision, while 95 per cent of nationalists thought it had been a mistake.

Nearly nine in ten voters (88 per cent) thought Brexit had been at least partly to blame for shortages of food and other goods in Northern Ireland shops; 62 per cent said it had been a major factor.

Unionists, however, were more likely to blame the pandemic and (especially) the Northern Ireland Protocol. Nearly eight in 10 (78 per cent) of them, including 89 per cent of 2017 DUP voters, said they thought the Protocol had been a major cause of shortages, compared to 38 per cent of unionists who said the same of Brexit more generally.

One in three voters – including 66 per cent of unionists, 83 per cent of 2017 DUP voters and 96 per cent of those saying they are likely to vote for Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) at the next Assembly election – said they thought the Protocol was wrong in principle and should be scrapped. A further nine per cent said the Protocol as it stands was too much of a burden and needed serious reform.

Another 36 per cent, including two thirds of Alliance voters and a quarter of UUP voters, said they thought the Protocol would be acceptable with some adjustments. Just over one in five (21 per cent) of Northern Ireland voters overall, including a majority (56 per cent) of those who voted for Sinn Féin in 2017, said they thought there were no problems with the Protocol.

Parties, leaders, and the next Assembly elections

Asked how positive or negative they felt about Northern Ireland’s political leaders, voters as a whole gave the highest scores to Doug Beattie of the UUP, Naomi Long of the Alliance Party, and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.

Those who voted for the DUP in the 2017 Assembly elections rated the TUV leader, Jim Allister, higher than the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, and the First Minister, Paul Givan – as did voters as a whole. Many in our focus groups lamented what they regarded as the lack of clear leadership at Stormont, especially with the roles of First Minister and DUP leader being held by different people.

Asked how likely they were to vote for each party at the next Assembly elections, DUP voters were the least likely to say would stick with their 2017 party.

Taking those who rated their chances of voting for a particular party at 90/100 or above, we find Sinn Féin ahead on 25 per cent with the DUP on 16 per cent, the Alliance on 14 per cent, TUV on 12 per cent and the UUP and SDLP each on 10 per cent. In our focus groups, voters on all sides felt there was a very good chance of Sinn Féin becoming the largest party and winning the First Minister post in 2022.

The full report, Ulster and the Union: the view from the North is available for free at LordAshcroftPolls.com.

Peter Franklin: Ten reasons why Labour isn’t dead yet

27 Sep

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

Here’s something to cheer up the gloomiest Tory: the Labour Party.

Out of power for eleven years and counting. Four general election defeats in a row. The loss of Scotland in 2015. The loss of the Red Wall in 2019. The loss of Hartlepool in 2021 (in a by-election, to a fourth-term Tory government).

This year’s party conference was a chance for a fresh start. But, so far, it’s been a disaster — featuring a 12,500 word “essay” that nobody read; an absurd statement on female anatomy; and a watered-down attempt to change the party rules on leadership elections.

That last one sums up the futility of last eleven years. Since 2010, Labour has elected three leaders. The third leader is using up his political capital on trying to reverse the first leader’s biggest mistake in the hope that no one like the second leader is ever elected again.

If Conservatives don’t take the Labour Party seriously, one can hardly blame them. And yet that could prove to be a big mistake. Labour is a much stronger foe than immediate appearances suggest.

Here are ten reasons why:

1) An irreducible core of support

I’m old enough to remember when the Conservative Party was in the same position that Labour is today. In fact from 1997 to 2005 we had 40 fewer seats than Labour’s current tally. At the time there were those who pronounced the party’s decline to be irreversible. And yet, even at the lowest ebb, the Tories never lost their major party status. There was an irreducible core of Conservative support (roughly 30 per cent of the electorate) and a heartland that held out against Tony Blair.

The same is true of Labour in 2021. The Red Wall may have fallen, but there are other red walls — the big cities, the Welsh Valleys and a sprinkling of university towns. These are still standing.

2) A plausible Prime Minister

I used to think that Keir Starmer was a poor leader of the Labour Party, but a good Leader of the Opposition. However, I’ve now seen enough his performances to convince me he’s bad at both.

He is, in the words of Ruth Davidson, “a dud” — except, that is, for one redeeming quality: you could imagine him in the role of Prime Minister. I mean that literally. If he was an actor and British politics a TV drama (yes, yes, same difference) — then one could plausibly cast him as the leader of his country.

The same could never have been said of Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn. So in that respect Labour’s taken a big step forward.

3) The German model

Of course, plausibility isn’t the same thing as popularity. And Starmer certainly doesn’t have the latter. But then neither did his German opposite number, Olaf Scholz — also a dull social democrat. And yet over the course of the German general election campaign he emerged as the voters’ favourite to succeed Angela Merkel.

Scholz didn’t receive a charisma transplant, he just stood out as the best of bad bunch. Admittedly that’s not the most vaulting of ambitions for Starmer, but sometimes it’s all you need.

4) Time for a change?

Tories don’t have to buy into theories of a centre-left revival to view the Germany result with concern. They just have to remember that, eventually, voters get fed up with having the same old party in power. After 16 years of CDU-led governments, it’s clear that German voters wanted something different.

By the time of the next British general election, we’ll have had 13 or 14 years of Tory-led government. If British voters decide time’s up, then the only alternative to a Conservative Prime Minister is a Labour Prime Minister.

5) A reservoir of potential voters

According to the polls, Labour is still stuck in the low-to-mid-thirties. That’s not enough. So where do the extra votes come from?

Well don’t forget the other parties of the centre-left. Between them, the Lib Dems and the Greens have got nearly 20 per cent in the polls. If Labour can squeeze that — especially in marginal seats where they’re best placed to win — then they’re back in business.

6) Brexit fade

And there’s another potential source of votes: people who voted Labour as recently as 2017, but who broke with the party over Brexit.

But how long will the Brexit effect last? Five years, ten years, a generation? Or is it already fading away? We just don’t know because we’ve never been here before.

I suspect that the only permanent loyalty among Red Wall voters is to not being taken for granted. Best not to let them down, then.

7) The spectre of 2017

One doesn’t have to speculate about Labour consolidating the left-leaning vote, because it’s happened once already.

I know that everyone except the Corbynites would rather forget, but in 2017 Labour won 40 per cent of the vote.

Can we be sure that there’s no potential for a second consolidation? Yes, it’s a nightmare scenario — but sometimes nightmares come true.

8) Coalition partners

Labour’s own nightmare is that’s they’ll never win a majority again. However, that doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to form a government. In fact, in the event of hung parliament, Labour now has an overwhelming advantage over the Conservatives.

Of the parties currently represented in the Commons, potential partners for Labour include any or all of the following: the SNP, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, the SDLP, the Alliance and (perhaps) the DUP.

How many of those would conceivably join a Conservative-led coalition (or prop up a minority government)? Well, after Ed Davey’s announcement last week, just the DUP — and they’re in decline.

So let’s be clear about this: an inconclusive election result almost certainly means a Labour-led government.

9) A new leader

Even if there’s no repeat of the 2017 scenario, there is another precedent to watch out for — 1994. That was the last time that Labour got tired of losing — and chose an electable leader.

But does Labour today have the equivalent of a Tony Blair? It does, and his name is Dan Jarvis — a political moderate, a former British Army officer and an MP for a northern seat. A sane Labour Party would have elected him leader five years ago, but a fifth successive general election might just bring them to their senses.

Jarvis has been in semi-exile from Westminster politics, serving as Mayor of the South Yorkshire metro region since 2018. Significantly, he’s now stepping down from that role. Perhaps, he’s got his eye on another position?

10) The coming red wave

Finally, let’s look far beyond the next general election — which we can do by looking at generational voting patterns.

It’s an over-simplification to say that old people vote Conservative and young people vote Labour — but it’s never been closer to the truth than it is today.

Of course, a pensioner’s vote is every bit as valid as anybody else’s – but that doesn’t just change the fact that the Grim Reaper is on Labour’s side.

One might hope that younger voters will turn Tory as they mature, but why would they if we continue to exclude them from home ownership? If we fail to turn that around, then Labour’s future looks a lot brighter than its present.

Poots and Faulkner

15 May

In 1970, James Chichester-Clark resigned as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and as Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister.  He was being pulled in opposite political directions by two different political forces.

The first was Harold Wilson’s Government, which was set on wrestlng control of security policy away from Stormont.  The second was Iain Paisley’s new Protestant Unionist Party, which had recently won two Westminster by-elections.

Chichester-Clark was succeeded by Brian Faulkner, whose earlier resignation from Northern Ireland’s government had been a factor in forcing the resignation of Chichester-Clark’s predecessor, Terence O’Neill.

Faulkner had earlier stood against Chichester-Clark for the Ulster Unionist leadership, losing by a single vote – that cast by O’Neill for Chicester-Clark…his cousin.

Faulkner had served as Northern Ireland’s Minister of Home Affairs during the late 1950s and early 1960s, where he built his reputation as an energetic politician on the right of his party – one that his resignation from O’Neill’s government had done nothing to weaken.

Once Prime Minister, he duly found himself caught between the same pressures as his predecessor.  Forced to choose between a revolting Unionist base and Edward Heath’s Government, he plumped for the latter.

The consequence was his acceptance of the Sunningdale Agreement, a forerunner of the Belfast Agreement, which brought him down – or, rather, was itself brought down by the loyalist Ulster Workers’ Council Strike.

Faulkner then lost the leadership of his party, formed the new Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which flopped, and left active politics in 1976, becoming Baron Faulkner of Downpatrick a year later.

There are many differences between Faulkner and Edwin Poots, yesterday elected as the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.  For a start, Poots will not lead Northern Ireland’s government, as Faulkner did when he became Ulster Unionist leader.

The Alliance Party, which sits nearer the centre of Northern Ireland’s politics, is better developed than it was in 1970, and is well positioned to pick up more middle-class Unionist votes.

And unlike Chichester-Clark, Arlene Foster hasn’t resigned: she continues as First Minister.  Rather, she was ousted by her own party from its leadership.

For all that, and despite Northern Ireland’s changes over 50 years, it shouldn’t be assumed that politics in Northern Ireland must follow a pre-determined script.

Because Poots is a member of the Free Presbytarian Church of Ulster, a young earth creationist, and opposes blood donations from gay people, it is widely assumed that he will tread a very narrow path.

Certainly, he defeated Sir Jeffrey Donaldson by 19 votes to 17 partly, even largely, because the unionist base is again in revolt – over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the treatment of Bobby Storey’s funeral, and a general sense that its position is under threat.

The turbulence is not as spectacular as that of 1970, but those DUP politicians will hope that Poots’ election will help to reassure Unionist voters, and bolster their own position – as their Ulster Unionist predecessors did of Faulkner’s.

And the new DUP has begun his leadership with that task in mind. “I will be a leader in unionism who will be reaching out to other leaders in unionism. I want to see unionism working together,” he said yesterday.

More broadly, the lack of political leadership in Northern Ireland’s government, the non-sitting of the Assembly for three years, the stalling of the 2015 “Fresh Start for Northern Ireland” programme, and the problems caused by the Protocol are driving a wider destabilisation.

Elections are only a year away, and Sinn Fein could emerge as the largest party – a prospect that does nothing to calm unionists.  So for all Boris Johnson’s lack of interest in Northern Ireland, don’t rule out a big political push from the Government later this year.

It would seek to bolster the Executive, take decisions that have been ducked on legacy, emblems, and the Irish language, and aim to hold Northern Ireland’s politicians to the commitments they signed up to in 2015.

These included the “fresh obligations on Northern Ireland’s elected representatives to work together on their shared objective of ridding society of all forms of paramilitary activity and groups” which the Executive then agreed to.

Poots will probably carry on where he is leaving off and, unlike Faulkner, refuse any compromises that London dangles before him.  But perhaps not.  With Northern Ireland, you never know.

Henry Hill: Why Foster’s exit most likely signals an even harder like against the Protocol from the DUP

29 Apr

Arlene Foster’s sudden resignation as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and First Minister of Northern Ireland is the latest sign of how long a shadow the Protocol is casting over Ulster politics.

Whilst it isn’t the only thing that seems to have motivated the party to oust her – critics are also citing a decision to abstain on a vote on gay conversion therapy – it almost certainly played the decisive role.

Having been DUP leader throughout the Brexit process, Foster seemed initially disposed to try and own the outcome and make the new checks in the Irish Sea work, an outlook she would have shared with Michael Gove.

But the scale of the unionist and loyalist backlash against the ‘Sea Border’ has put paid to that, and the DUP are now scrambling to avoid haemorrhaging voters to more hardline parties at the next Stormont elections. Jim Allister and his hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) are well positioned to attack the DUP on this flank, and public anger is such that their usual defensive position (that splitting the unionist vote might let Sinn Fein claim the First Minister’s office) may not fly.

Given that the DUP, like Sinn Fein and the SNP, has traditionally had the culture of phalanx-like internal discipline that seems a hallmark of nationalist parties, those behind the putsch must have feared a truly dire electoral reckoning if action wasn’t taken.

Moreover, many senior DUP figures will be uncomfortably aware of the historical precedent, for such is pretty much exactly the same fate they inflicted on David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists after the latter did the heavy lifting to secure the Belfast Agreement. The rise of the DUP by contrast was followed by the St Andrews Agreement, which is widely regarded as having turned out to be a step backwards. Will history repeat itself with the TUV?

According to the Daily Telegraph, ministers are unenthusiastic about the prospect of a new DUP leader, who they expect will take a much harder line on the Protocol. But in theory at least the Government has already accepted the need for fundamental reform – that was the logic of David Frost’s appointment as explained to me last month.

The even more serious question is what happens to Northern Irish politics. Whilst a new and more hard-line leader could staunch the flow of voters to the TUV, it might also alienate more moderate voters who have rowed in behind the DUP as it cemented its position as the dominant Unionist party. In recent history this would almost certainly have profited the Alliance Party, but given that liberal unionists share many of the same concerns over the Protocol and a one-sided reading of the Belfast Agreement. So it could create an opening for the Ulster Unionists or even – with enough work, money, and time – the Conservatives.

But the devolved institutions could be on the line. One of the DUP’s most effective tactics for corralling pro-UK voters into their camp has been the fear that a divided unionist vote will see Sinn Fein win the First Minister’s office. Whilst this logic has helped to keep Ulster’s politics stuck in the sectarian cul-de-sac, there is truth to it. Would the DUP, under a more hard-line leader, consent to serve as Deputy First Minister. The alternative could be unionists doing what Sinn Fein did a few years before and bringing down Stormont, and this time it might not come back.

Of course, we should not rule out another possibility. Until just a few years ago the combined unionist parties had a fairly secure majority in the Assembly. Those voters haven’t all died or turned suddenly into nationalists, and circumstances may give the DUP a chance to lure them back.

During the negotiations that saw Stormont given an opportunity to reject (most of) the Protocol, the Irish/EU side insisted that it not be done on a cross-community basis. So long as unionists are in the minority, this will prevent them blocking the Protocol on the basis of their community vote alone. But in the event that they were to regain the majority they held only a few years ago, it means they could set it aside in the teeth of Sinn Fein’s opposition.

‘Unionist unity’ is a self-defeating long-term strategy. But it can deliver results in the short-term. A united anti-Protocol front might be the DUP’s best chance of retaining the leadership of unionism – regardless of the headaches it causes in Dublin, Brussels, or London.