The Westminster Election in Northern Ireland 2015

Posted by ap507 at May 14, 2015 12:25 PM |
Stephen Hopkins discusses how the general election impacted Northern Ireland and how the 10 Unionists in Westminster have an important role to play
The Westminster Election in Northern Ireland 2015

Source: Wikipedia; image shows Peter Robinson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), one of the two main unionist political parties in Northern Ireland

 

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The general election in Northern Ireland did not produce as much drama as elsewhere in the UK, and in many respects the results confirmed the established voting patterns in the province. Some commentators had speculated that the MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party (which held 8 seats from 2010) might play a significant role in government formation, in the event of a hung parliament.

Although this scenario did not transpire as the Conservatives secured an overall majority, nonetheless the 10 Unionists returned to Westminster (8 DUP and 2 from the Ulster Unionist Party) may still have an important role to play in David Cameron’s attempts to construct a workable governing majority.

 

Voting behaviour in Northern Ireland continues to be overwhelmingly dominated by the competition between and within the respective Protestant unionist and Catholic Irish nationalist ethno-national blocs. On the unionist side, the DUP won 25.7% and the UUP 16.0% (both marginally higher than in 2010). Among Irish nationalists and republicans, Sinn Féin (SF) won 24.5% (down 1%) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) 13.9% (down 2.6%). The overall vote for the unionist bloc was 44.0% (DUP, UUP and Traditional Unionist Voice), almost exactly the same as in 2010.

Surprisingly, votes for the Irish nationalist bloc (SF and SDLP) fell slightly, from 42% to 38.4%. But, there was not much comfort here for those committed to a non-sectarian or cross-community politics in Northern Ireland. It is true that the Alliance Party (APNI) improved its share of the vote to 8.6% (from 6.3% in 2010 and 3.9% in 2005), but if this result cheered those opposed to the tribal ‘carve-up’ of Northern Irish politics, the fact that the only APNI MP, Naomi Long in East Belfast, lost her seat to the DUP soon punctured any optimism in this regard.

Long lost her seat, despite a strong performance, in part because of a pact in the constituency between the major unionist parties, with the UUP standing down. A similar arrangement between the DUP and UUP saw SF’s Michelle Gildernew defeated in the symbolic seat of Fermanagh/South Tyrone (which SF had held since 2001), with Tom Elliott gaining the highly marginal seat for the UUP.

Given that this was the seat spectacularly won by IRA hunger striker, Bobby Sands, in a by-election in 1981, this result will certainly have hurt for SF. Whilst the republican party, which abstains from taking its seats in the House of Commons (believing that Westminster is an illegitimate parliament in Northern Ireland), maintained 4 of its 5 seats, this was a disappointing night; for opponents, it provided some hope that SF’s apparently inexorable growth might, at last, have reached a plateau.

As an unfortunate by-product of these results, Northern Ireland saw its female representation halved (from 4 MPs to 2). The SDLP survived with its 3 MPs intact, but perhaps the major winner was the UUP, which restored its presence at Westminster with the victories of Elliott and Danny Kinahan in South Antrim (an unexpected defeat for the DUP).

The hope (or fear) that some voters in Northern Ireland might prefer a politics of ‘normality’ by UK standards was roundly scotched. Offered the opportunity to vote for the Conservatives in 16 of the 18 constituencies, only 1.3% of electors obliged. The Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol candidates beat the Tories in 3 contests! UKIP did only a little better with 2.6% (from 10 seats). Turnout in Northern Ireland was down to 58%, significantly lower than the UK figure of 66%, perhaps reflecting the relatively predictable nature of the contests in many safe seats.

It is also the case that voters and non-voters alike know that the main parties are condemned to govern together in the devolved power-sharing Executive in the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, and this stable (or, to its critics, stagnant) system has drained some of the vitriol from Northern Irish election campaigns. The next test for these parties will be the 2016 Stormont election.

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