Will unionists face electoral Armageddon at next Westminster elections?

To cite this paper: Bernard Mulholland, ‘Will unionists face electoral Armageddon at next Westminster elections?’, Polyphony, 370, pp. 9-13.

Preamble.

In a recent article (‘Unsustainable nature of how NI is financed leading to a danger that must be tackled’, Belfast Telegraph, Saturday, February 4, 2023, p. 9) the DUP Member of Parliament (MP) for East Belfast, Gavin Robinson, complained:

During the 2022-2025 Westminster budget cycle, public spending in England is set to grow by 6%, but a stilted 3.6% in NI.

In the next three years, some £2,000 will fall from per household public service expenditure for Northern Ireland in real terms.

Worst of all, the Barnett formula does not work on the basis of assessed need. In 1979, we received 129% of England’s spend per head.

Today, it sits at 121%, less than Scotland and the squeeze will continue.

In sharing this, I want to start the debate. The negative trajectory can and must be changed, but that will only happen when we see, acknowledge and deal with the danger.

            Well, almost everyone else in this Politics Special Interest Group is English, and, like the DUP MP for East Belfast, one suspects you are also debating why funding for Northern Ireland has dropped from 129% to only 121% of England’s spend per head. Perhaps you would like to share your well-researched thoughts on this issue.

            It is perhaps unfortunate that the MP for East Belfast looks like he has consumed much of that extra 29% funding himself. It is also perhaps unfortunate that he refers back to the 1970s for this is the period when prime minister Harold Wilson, in a speech delivered on 25th May 1974 (https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/events/uwc/docs/hw25574.htm), referred to unionists as spongers, and, from then, unionists have gone out of their way to prove him right. While the Republic of Ireland, which joined the EEC (European Economic Community) on 1st January 1973 together with Denmark, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, has become a net contributor to the EU (European Union), it is noticeable that even after a century in that other ‘union’, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, NI unionists have never signalled their intention to become net contributors to the British Treasury.

            This debate provides an important backdrop to current events unfolding on the European stage over the NI Protocol. After the May 2022 elections to the NI Assembly, the DUP have refused to allow either the NI Assembly or Executive to be formed with the stated intention to force the British government to replace the Protocol with something else that meets their demands.

            The media have reported that the DUP’s publicly stated position is being driven by the TUV leader, Jim Allister, and Unionist Voice blogger Jamie Bryson, see:

http://jamiebryson.blogspot.com/

https://www.brugesgroup.com/blog/blogger/jamieb

https://unionistvoice.com/

            The latter has argued (‘Bryson in legal bid to block building of border control posts at ports’, Belfast Telegraph, Wednesday, February 1, 2023, p5) that:

The relevant statutory instrument treats Northern Ireland as the entry point into the European Union territory.

This is not only a constitutional absurdity, but it is even at variance with the protocol itself, which at Article 4 proclaims Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the UK.

This legal challenge will force the Government to confront the duplicity of their actions in claiming to be seeking to restore Northern Ireland to the UK, whilst at the same time in fact laying regulations to treat Northern Ireland as part of the European Union.

            The irony here is that the DUP have been the sole unionist political party from Northern Ireland represented at Westminster throughout the entire Brexit process, and held the balance of power there for much of that negotiation, and claimed publicly to have shaped the Withdrawal Agreement that includes the NI Protocol. Indeed they universally claimed it to be an outstanding victory.

            Their newfound opposition to the NI Protocol has also been shaped by a series of polls held in NI that claim the majority of unionists oppose the NI Protocol, and now support the DUP’s refusal to allow the Stormont institutions to be formed.

            However, there is arguably considerable danger lurking for the DUP – and for unionism – as it fast approaches the next Westminster elections.

Lurking electoral danger – Westminster elections.

            Elections to Westminster are likely to take place within the next two years. Unionists – the DUP – currently holds only 8 (Table 00) of the available 18 Westminster constituencies (https://electionresults.parliament.uk/election/2019-12-12/results/Location/Country/Northern%20Ireland) in Northern Ireland: East Belfast, Strangford, Upper Bann, East Antrim, North Antrim, South Antrim, East Londonderry and the DUP leader’s Lagan Valley constituency.

            From 1997 the rise and fall of both the DUP and its current leader (Table 0) can be compared more generally to the overall performance of other political parties in NI. However, it is only when the data is drilled down into at constituency level (Table 1-8) that the potential threat to the DUP becomes apparent. This danger is magnified by the DUP choosing to side with the anti-Protocol segment of the population which is arguably heavily skewed by ‘loyalists’ who in the main do not vote, and which is an electoral segment that is clearly in a minority overall.

            This latter point becomes of far more importance in Westminster elections because these are first-past-the-post elections that tend to have two parties battling for overall supremacy in each constituency, and in Northern Ireland the next Westminster election is quite likely to be turned into a straight head-on pro- versus anti-Protocol contest.

            The DUP leader’s Westminster seat is thought to be particularly susceptible to an assault from the Alliance Party’s Sorcha Eastwood who polled very strongly in the 2019 Westminster election, and almost pulled off a shock result:

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP) 19,586 (43.1%, -16.4%)

Sorcha Eastwood (Alliance) 13,087 (28.8%, +17.7%)

(See: https://www.ark.ac.uk/elections/alv.htm)

            There is compelling evidence that the DUP leader is not as popular as his party had hoped, and his decision (February 14) to again block formation of the NI Assembly and Executive, which would have allowed organ donor legislation to be passed, may have dramatic consequences. The DUP leader and his party have argued that the legislation can be passed instead at Westminster, but, in spite of the party’s claim to be influential there, the Protocol Bill championed by former prime minister Liz Truss appears to be stranded in the House of Lords, and the Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, Steve Baker, and prominent member of the ERG, has openly criticised the need for NI to receive 20% more per head than his own English constituents.

            There is also evidence from the British government and NI Office that the political pecking order prioritises the largest political party in the NI Assembly, Sinn Féin, over and above the largest NI political party at Westminster, i.e. the DUP. When King Charles made his first official visit to Hillsborough in NI he pointedly spoke first with the Speaker of the NI Assembly, and then with the Sinn Féin first minister designate while the DUP leader moped in the corner. Had the DUP entered the NI Executive after the 2022 Assembly elections then the King would have addressed both the first minister and deputy first minister together, presumably, i.e. they would be treated as co-equal. Instead the British political establishment provided clear evidence that Sinn Féin now has the political lead in NI.

            Why is this important?

            Well, both unionist and loyalist protestors have vehemently objected to the prospect of joint rule in NI between London and Dublin in the absence of a NI Executive. As observed in the article in last month’s Polyphony, in the face of political previous boycotts there is consistent evidence the British government has taken its lead from the largest political party in NI. In the aftermath of the May 2022 elections to the NI Assembly this is now Sinn Féin, and the president of Sinn Féin, i.e. the leader, is also the leader of the Opposition in Dáil Éireann, which effectively means that thanks to the boycott of the NI Executive by the DUP, UUP and TUV there is de facto joint rule by London and Dublin as the British government takes its lead from Sinn Féin! In effect, it can be argued that the DUP’s cunning plan has delivered what they fear most.  

            Furthermore, leaks to the media about the Protocol deal currently being negotiated between the British government and the EU may be problematical for the DUP. The British government appears to have persuaded the EU to allow red/green lanes at customs checks for GB-NI trade and in return the first port of call for legal challenges to the outworking of the Protocol will be NI Courts with any appeals then handled by the ECJ (European Court of Justice), and the practical effect of this will be to align and integrate NI Courts with the ECJ. One suspects that the TUV and unionist bloggers will effectively accuse the DUP of being cheese-eating surrender monkeys if they agree to the deal as leaked and outlined by the media.

            Moreover, electoral evidence suggests that the DUP leader is not the only one from his party to face a strong challenge at the next Westminster election.

Pro- versus anti-Protocol Westminster contest.

            If the anti-Protocol vote in Northern Ireland is considered to consist of the DUP, UUP and TUV then we can extrapolate from the 2019 Westminster election how a pro- versus anti-Protocol contest might shape up, albeit accepting that as a large chunk of unionist electorate are also pro-Protocol these data present an optimistic best-case scenario.

            The data here are presented as Votes cast/anti-Protocol total (percentage of votes cast), and ranked accordingly:

North Antrim 44,355/28,999 (65%)

Lagan Valley 45,589/29,462 (64%)

South Antrim 43,188/27,609 (63%)

East Antrim 37,431/23,389 (62%) 

Strangford 37,669/23512 (62%)

Belfast East 42,619/23,390 (54%) 

Upper Bann 50,348/26,698 (53%)

East Londonderry 39,495/19,364 (49%)

Key variables are:

(i) Evidence indicates that the NI electorate increasingly recognises that Westminster elections are effectively a two-horse race, and the non-DUP electorate is increasingly coalescing around the main candidate capable of defeating their incumbent DUP MP.

(ii) Evidence indicates that the DUP performance is far better when Westminster elections coincide with elections to the NI Assembly (2017) but much worse when they are solo (2010 and 2015).

(iii) Given that many unionists favour the NI Protocol, it is not known how many unionists would prioritise pro-Protocol sentiment over ‘the Union’, and,

(iv) Evidence indicates there are demographic changes brought about by population movement and deaths, i.e. more unionists are among the older population, students from unionist background more likely to study abroad, and there is evidence many are just selling up and leaving. 

            If all of these factors are taken into consideration, and the next Westminster election becomes a pro- versus anti-Protocol contest, then it seems increasingly likely that the DUP may emerge with only one MP in North Antrim with the other constituencies distributed as such:

Alliance – Lagan Valley, East Belfast, East Antrim, and Strangford

UUP or Alliance – South Antrim

Sinn Féin or Alliance – Upper Bann

Alliance, Sinn Féin or SDLP – East Londonderry

            These predicted results are predicated upon there being a pro- versus anti-Protocol contest at the next Westminster elections in NI in which the electorate coalesce around the candidate most likely to unseat the incumbent DUP candidate.

            Should this scenario emerge then there is likely to be an unseemly scramble by the DUP and its leader to get the NI Assembly and Executive back up and running again. However, they could face two obvious hurdles.

(i) As already observed, there is already de facto joint rule by London and Dublin, and so why would Sinn Féin facilitate the DUP at their own expense?

(ii) If Alliance, which designates as ‘Other’ in the NI Assembly, were to emerge victorious at the next Westminster elections, then they will almost certainly demand that their designation in the Assembly be placed on an equal footing with the ‘Unionist’ and ‘Nationalist’ designation as the price for reinstating the NI Assembly and Executive.

            It’s fair to observe that the DUP and fellow unionists would vehemently dispute the predictions made here, but then again the DUP are not looking too clever these days.

            It’s also fair to observe that whilst NI politicians are as usual raking over past elections and decisions over which they have little or no control, they could instead choose to analyse and evaluate the NI Protocol to determine whether it might be improved in ways that all or most of them could sign up to.  

NI Protocol-plus-plus-plus.

            And so, how might the NI Protocol be improved in a way that all or most political parties in NI might agree to?

(i) Erasmus: almost 50% of young people in NI attend university, albeit due to a cap on the number of NI students the two local universities can enrol, many do attend universities across the water. A lot of young people, and their parents, might welcome the return of the Erasmus program for NI residents.

(ii) Horizon Europe: in the same vein, universities in NI could welcome their integration within this program so they can access research funding.

(iii) CAP: the infamous Common Agricultural Policy long besmirched by Conservative governments, but almost universally revered by farmers in NI. Could they negotiate a sweetheart deal with the EU that would more than compensate for current travails?

(iv) Council of Ministers/European Parliament/European Commission: a key complaint raised by the TUV leader is that taxes and legislation will be applied to NI by the EU without the consent of those in NI. It seems obvious that one way to address this problem is for NI to be represented at each of these august institutions, including the ECJ.

            One suspects that the NI political parties might improve upon that list if they actually sat down to review the current situation.

Finale – what do the English think?

            As English correspondents, ask yourself this, how would the electoral and constitutional landscape be changed if unionists from Northern Ireland were represented by a single MP at Westminster? And especially if the SNP in turn won the vast number of Westminster seats in Scotland and choose to withdraw them, in emulation of Sinn Féin in Ireland a century ago when they formed Dáil Éireann in Dublin, to form a stand-alone Scottish Parliament?

            What reforms would be required of the British government and its institutions?

Table 00. Total Unionist seats at Westminster from Northern Ireland.

Table 0. Total Westminster seats for Northern Ireland, and party strengths.

Table 1. Lagan Valley Westminster results where the DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, stands.

Table 2. East Belfast Westminster results.

Table 3. East Antrim Westminster results.

Table 4. South Antrim Westminster results.

Table 5. Strangford Westminster results.

Table 6. Upper Bann Westminster results.

Table 7. East Londonderry Westminster results.

  Table 8. North Antrim Westminster results.

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Author: Dr. Bernard Mulholland

Dr. Bernard Mulholland is a Byzantinist, archaeologist, historian and Patristics scholar with a Ph.D. in history (QUB, 2012). Bernard's publications include: Fiction: Bernard Mulholland, Nazareth Quest (2022). https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=NfWkEAAAQBAJ&pli=1 https://books.apple.com/us/book/id6445327630 https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0B92V9VYF Non-fiction: Bernard Mulholland, The man from MENSA - 1 of 600: Mensa research (2016). https://books.apple.com/us/book/id6445329346 https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=gfWkEAAAQBAJ https://www.amazon.com/dp/1535307269 ---, The man from MENSA - 1 of the 600: Politics 1990-1995 (2016). https://books.apple.com/us/book/id6445329553 https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=j_WkEAAAQBAJ https://www.amazon.com/dp/1535324376 ---, Ratio analysis of financial KPI in the Higher Education sector: a case study (2018). https://books.apple.com/us/book/id6445320705 https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=YfWkEAAAQBAJ https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09MB99NWP ---, Early Byzantine Ireland: a survey of the archaeological evidence (2021). https://books.apple.com/us/book/id6445354716 https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=ChilEAAAQBAJ https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09MG1YZ8W ---, Navan Fort, Ireland: archaeological and palaeoecological analysis (2021). https://books.apple.com/us/book/id6445397300 https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=PhilEAAAQBAJ https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09MYXX9GM ---, The Early Byzantine Christian Church (Oxford, 2014). https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-early-byzantine-christian-church/id1023114473 ---, 'Identification of Early Byzantine Constantinopolitan, Syrian, and Roman church plans in the Levant and some possible consequences', Patristic Studies in the twenty-first century: proceedings of an international conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the International Association of Patristic Studies, ed. Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony, Theodore de Bruyn and Carol Harrison (Turnhout, 2015), 597-633. https://www.brepolsonline.net/doi/10.1484/J.BAIEP.5.107536 Mulholland, B. (2021). 'Can archaeology inform the climate change debate?' Academia Letters, Article4385. https://doi.org/10.20935/AL4385

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