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British–Irish relations set to improve, but where next for unionism and for Sinn Féin?

John Doyle

Labour’s victory in the British general election has already shown signs of a reset in British–Irish relations, with early contact between the two governments and a date set for a meeting between the prime minister and the Irish taoiseach. The structural challenges facing Keir Starmer will, however, not be easily resolved. He has so strongly ruled out any prospect of the UK rejoining not only the EU itself but also the Single Market that tensions on EU–UK trade will continue, and with them the GB–Northern Ireland ‘sea border’.

In Northern Ireland, the results confirmed that post-Brexit political shifts are continuing and have not yet reached a new steady state. Sinn Féin, despite standing aside for the Alliance Party in three constituencies and the SDLP in one, still emerged as by far the largest party in Northern Ireland, now at all three levels of government – local, NI Assembly and Westminster. Sinn Féin increased its vote share by 4.2 percentage points over the 2019 Westminster election, and none of its constituencies could now be termed marginal. It failed to capture East Derry from the DUP by only 179 votes, while Fermanagh and South Tyrone – once the UK’s most marginal seat – now seems relatively safe for the party. The SDLP may be content with holding its two seats, but has seen its vote fall again – by almost 4 percentage points since 2019. Claire Hanna seems safe in South Belfast but John Hume’s old seat in Foyle is now more marginal than Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and will be a very winnable Sinn Féin target next time.

The post-Brexit growth in support for Alliance has reversed, with a drop of almost 2 percentage points to 15 per cent. Victory in Lagan Valley was offset by the loss of North Down by a significant margin, and party leader Naomi Long did not come close to winning back her former seat in East Belfast from the DUP. As Brendan O’Leary has frequently pointed out, we do not have a 40:40:20 split of opinion in NI – more like 42:42:16.

The DUP made headlines as the big losers in this election – losing three seats, one each to Alliance, the Ulster Unionists and the Traditional Unionists. Ian Paisley losing his seat made headlines, but East Antrim and East Derry are also now very marginal, to Sinn Féin and Alliance respectively. Three of NI’s top four most marginal seats are held by the DUP. The difficulty for the DUP is that it faces challenges in every political direction. If it collapses power-sharing again, or adopts more conservative unionist positions to win back TUV votes, it will lose just as many seats, perhaps more, to Alliance and the UUP.

Post-Brexit, there is no majority in Northern Ireland for an anti-EU, socially conservative, anti-power-sharing unionist party. The DUP with that stance may win back many TUV voters, but if such a party is solidified as the dominant voice of unionism, it risks further increasing the proportion of middle–ground voters who are willing to support Irish unity as a means of rejoining the EU, creating some political stability and growing the NI economy. Calls for ‘unionist unity’ inside a single party will have little appeal for many young voters from unionist family backgrounds if the price they have to pay is hostility to the EU, the LGBT community, abortion rights, etc.

Unionism now hovers between 43 per cent and 40 per cent support, depending on the electoral system used in a given vote. To defeat an almost inevitable future referendum on Irish unity (at some stage), it needs to win a clear majority of those currently voting Alliance (or not voting at all). That requires an appeal to more liberal, pro-EU voters, for whom a traditional call, based only on hostility to the South, will have little chance of success.

Some progressive unionist voices are hopeful that a Labour government in London will increase public spending at an overall UK level and that improved public services and/or economic growth in Northern Ireland will strength pro-Union opinion among the undecided. It may do, but the route to such growth and improved public services across the UK is not clear. Labour has ruled out increasing any of the main sources of taxation – income tax, national insurance, VAT and corporation tax. It has also committed to reducing the large fiscal deficit that it inherited from the Tories. Only strong economic growth can allow it to improve public services without increasing taxes or borrowing, and outside of the Single Market that may not be forthcoming. Many of its newly secured seats are the result of a Tory–Reform divide, while parliament/Senedd elections in Scotland and Wales will provide a 2026 mid-term test outside of England. In those circumstances, a recalculation of UK public expenditure rules to more accurately reflect Northern Ireland’s level of underdevelopment may be modest in terms of what additional public expenditure is possible in Northern Ireland.


Professor John Doyle

Dublin City University

Editor, Irish Studies in International Affairs