Sinn Féin’s electoral might was aided by their pig-headed DUP rivals’ inability to adapt and confront an ideological crisis
More than half a century after Terence O’Neill, the prime minister of a dying Stormont, said that Northern Ireland stood at the crossroads, another O’Neill is at the top of Stormont — and unionism again stands at the crossroads.
Already, modern unionism’s dominant party appears blind to the scale of the crisis which confronts it and deaf to warnings now coming even from within its own ranks.
It is that inability by the DUP to honestly confront its own role in driving voters to Sinn Féin which ought to concern unionists — rather than worrying about a Border poll which the DUP self-servingly talked up but is in reality neither imminent nor yet winnable for nationalism.
Nor will Thursday’s vote mean a radical change in Stormont. The devolved institutions were deliberately designed to prevent majority rule and so, while Michelle O’Neill can now rub out a word in her old deputy first minister title, she does not obtain a single new power. If devolution returns, Sinn Féin will be as constrained by the DUP as the DUP was by Sinn Féin.
That is not to minimise the scale of Sinn Féin’s stunning achievement. For a party outcast for decades as the apologists for IRA atrocities to become Stormont’s biggest party is remarkable. To do so decisively — polling more than a quarter of a million first preference votes, 66,386 votes ahead of the DUP — is extraordinary. To increase Sinn Féin’s vote, after 15 years at the top of Stormont and when the polls predicted it would fall, is a devastating display of electoral might.
Has the DUP’s response been introspection, humility, or regret? Of course not. The DUP has effectively blamed other unionist parties for standing and many unionist voters for having the temerity to prefer those parties, and the Alliance Party, to it. These would be demonstrably ludicrous arguments for any party to make, but for the DUP — a party which exists only because it split the unionist vote by challenging the dominant UUP — it is wholly hypocritical.
As with Brexit, as with the RHI scandal, as with making Boris Johnson prime minister, as with almost every calamity for which the DUP might have been advised to at least feign contrition, the party has instead blamed others.
Not only is that pig-headed, it is hurting the DUP. As former DUP adviser Tim Cairns put it brutally on Friday night: “21.3pc [of the vote] is a disaster for the DUP. If the party was a proper political party there would be a change in the senior backroom team on Monday morning. There won’t be.”
Politics is about survival of the fittest, and those who fail to confront their mistakes repeat them. Indeed, the DUP appears to be positioning itself to amplify those errors. The party has refused to say if it would accept a Sinn Féin first minister — and drove many people to O’Neill’s party to teach the DUP a lesson.
When asked what message was conveyed by a fall in the DUP’s vote, leader Jeffrey Donaldson said “a divided unionism doesn’t win elections”. Colleague Mervyn Storey took that idea to its logical conclusion, suggesting the idea of a single unionist party.
The UUP and DUP are now sufficiently desperate to consider such a nostalgic prospect, long advocated by some of their leading members. But recreating the old Unionist Party would almost certainly mean an even greater fall in the total unionist vote. The incoherence of such a party would be overwhelming. Unionists disagree on almost everything beyond the Union — economic policy, social policy, educational policy, the environment, and on and on. Ultimately, it would split, with the remnants weaker than ever.
In the short term, circling unionism’s wagons closer would certainly save key unionist seats and — at least until nationalism responds in kind — secure it the first minister’s post once more. But politics is about persuasion and there’s no reason to believe that a single unionist party, which would to many voters look deeply tribal, is going to persuade the voters leaving unionism to return.
It is a measure of the Union’s strength that it endures despite the hapless efforts of the parties which exist to defend it. Many voters who support the Union are voting for the Alliance Party because they intuitively feel it is not in immediate danger. Many nationalists are also now voting for Alliance because they care more about trying to make Northern Ireland work than about straining for an urgent plebiscite on reunification.
There is here a tension between those who are pro-Union and those who are unionist. The latter care not only about the fact of the Union, but about the cultural trappings of unionism — about flags, emblems, and Britishness. They rightly perceive these are changing as unionism is now one of three minority blocs. It is not enough for them to stay in the Union if the price is a radical reshaping of how Northern Ireland looks and feels.
That is why the Northern Ireland Protocol has helped propel Jim Allister’s hardline TUV to almost treble its support to 65,000 votes. The protocol involves inexorable divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, something still barely seen because most of the protocol has not been implemented.
When Johnson betrayed the DUP to agree an Irish Sea border, the one morsel he threw them was a “consent mechanism” whereby Stormont could vote down the deal in 2024 if unionism secured a majority. This election has seen unionism not even come close to securing the necessary seats.
Indeed, it was an argument which the DUP hardly made during the campaign, ignoring this substantive issue in favour of the tribal symbolism of who would be first minister and the risky decision to talk up the link between a Sinn Féin victory and a Border poll.
Northern Ireland is not going away any time soon. But it is changing profoundly and it is the parties that exist to defend the status quo which continue to spectacularly misunderstand that reality.