Belfast Telegraph

EU Election 2019

Jon Tonge: Alliance's success brings into question existing structures

Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Two breakthroughs in one month. These are heady days for Naomi Long's Alliance Party.

The implications are potentially profound, for Brexit and a border poll.

Most Northern Ireland voters voted Remain in 2016, have backed Remain parties since, elected two Remain candidates at this election and support the backstop if they cannot stay in the EU.

So good luck to the next Conservative leader explaining to Brussels why it is in Northern Ireland's best interests that a Withdrawal Agreement signed off across all member states be renegotiated.

Barnier will bin Boris, not the backstop.

Then the Conservative government may have the stark choice between a plea for another delay to departure - which party leadership candidates are ruling out - or leave the EU with no deal.

And the DUP will inhibit any backsliding from a new Conservative leader who, like the outgoing one, concedes that there really is no alternative to the backstop.

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Alliance surge Phase 2 won't shift the DUP.

Its vote share rose again, with Diane Dodds cantering home.

Meanwhile, the UUP is now bereft of representation everywhere except on local councils.

Given that most Northern Ireland voters want to remain in the EU, the logic of the UUP in switching sides to supporting leave was questionable.

This was another very weak election performance.

The unionist leave-the-EU market was already a crowded marketplace in which it made little sense to jostle with the DUP and TUV bruisers.

Having cautioned in 2016 against Brexit on the grounds of economic damage, the UUP now advocated its implementation on the basis of popular UK sovereignty - which is not the easiest canvass.

A personable candidate like Danny Kennedy was always up against it taking on the committed Brexit true believers.

Does this result hasten a possible referendum beyond Brexit - a border poll?

In this European contest, 43% of voters backed unionist parties, 36% backed nationalist organisations and 21% backed 'others'.

That's nowhere near dramatic enough for the Secretary of State to fire the starting pistol, but it does indicate that a border poll, if ever called, is not quite a foregone conclusion for the unionist cause.

To be safe, unionists would have to attract the backing of at least one-third of those supporting Alliance or the Greens - and many of those supporters are utterly alienated by Brexit and its backers.

Otherwise, unionists might need Seamus Mallon to do the counting.

Alliance's success also brings into question the political structures which have so prioritised unionism and nationalism within the Assembly.

Parallel consent rules framed around those two minority identities - when the largest category of people, albeit not among those bothering to vote, say they are 'neither', may need revisiting.

Northern Ireland's party system is changing, with single big parties dominating the right, left and, finally, the centre.

Brexit continues to transform politics - and we are far from done yet.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

Belfast Telegraph


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