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GE 2019: What are the defining issues for Northern Ireland?

GE 2019: What are the defining issues for Northern Ireland?

On 5th November, MPs backed a government proposal to hold a General Election on the 12th December. Of the 11 MPs for Northern Ireland who take their seats in the House of Commons; all 10 Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs voted for the motion, while the Independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon voted against.

As the election campaign is now fully underway, the issues that define this election around the United Kingdom are slightly more nuanced from a Northern Irish perspective.

As it stands, there are four main issues defining this election in Northern Ireland.

  1. Brexit

Like the rest of the UK, this election’s main issue in Northern Ireland is Brexit. Just as Parliament is stuck on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, parties in Northern Ireland are equally divided on the issue as well.

The DUP are the clear leave-supporting party in NI. They are against Johnson’s revised Brexit deal as it would treat Northern Ireland differently than the rest of the UK. As a Unionist party, the main goal of the DUP is to uphold NI’s position within the union of the United Kingdom and so, in their view, supporting such a deal would be against their party beliefs.

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) is seeking to show that its own brand of Unionism is separate to that of the DUP. The party were split during the 2016 EU Referendum, although it officially campaigned then to remain. The new leader of the UUP, Steve Aiken, has stated it would be better for all of the UK to remain in the EU rather than accept the prime minister’s Brexit deal.

The main pro-remain parties in NI – Sinn Fein, Alliance, and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) – are also campaigning against the DUP’s strategy.

Main sticking points in NI surrounding Brexit are issues around a backstop and whether this would lead to a hard or soft border in the country, how customs checks on goods being carried into NI would work, as well as issues surrounding VAT and how a proposed consent mechanism would work in NI.

Additionally, a recent court case in Belfast has brought to light ways in which the Good Friday Agreement (1998) may be infringed by Brexit. Emma De Souza claimed that her right to Irish citizenship was questioned by the UK Home Office, as she was told to reapply for a residence card for her American husband using a British passport. Under the GFA, all citizens of Northern Ireland have the right to be Irish, British, or both. In De Souza’s case, she only identifies as Irish. The case ruled that Northern Irish citizens are British - even if they identify as Irish.

This case will be a sticking point throughout the election, especially for those in NI identifying as Irish, as they may be more likely to be opposed to Brexit due to these constitutional infringements.

  1. Constitutional Question

Uncertainty around the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland caused by Brexit is bringing to light a question of whether we should have a referendum on a United Ireland.

Additionally, with a recent YouGov poll showing that 41% of mainland Britons wouldn’t be bothered if Northern Ireland left the UK, this question is a key one that may be guiding how the public in NI vote on 12th December.

Those who are for a United Ireland may be more inclined to vote for Sinn Fein, while those who are totally against it may instead choose to vote for the DUP. For those in the middle or without a preference on the constitutional question, a vote for Alliance or the Green Party may be more prominent.

At the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis (annual party conference) on 16th November in Derry/Londonderry, party leader, Mary Lou McDonald, called for a referendum on Irish unity to be held in the next five years.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, a provision is included for a border poll. A border poll is a referendum on Irish Reunification. This provision is explicitly laid out, with the agreement stating a poll should be called if:

“it seems likely that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”

The Secretary of State for NI must decide if the requirements have been met to call a border poll. This could be if there is a consistent will for a vote, if there is a Nationalist majority in the NI Assembly, or if a majority vote succeeds in the Assembly.

  1. Power-Sharing

Although the heart of this election lies in the Brexit issue, in Northern Ireland it is essentially a proxy judgement on the lack of governance in Stormont.

The election will take place a month prior to the third anniversary of the collapse of power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. The government collapsed due to ongoing policy issues between the two largest parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, and no talks have resolved such issues.

The smaller parties will point to the ongoing failure of the DUP and Sinn Fein to end the Stormont impasse as a reason to vote for an alternative. Alliance, the Green Party, and People Before Profit did well using such a tactic in the May 2019 local elections, increasing their vote share by 21%, 4%, and 4% respectively.

Discussions around the Stormont impasse have heightened in the past few days, as Julian Smith, the Secretary of State for NI, said on 15th November that Northern Ireland could be in for another Assembly election if power-sharing is not restored by 13th January.

  1. Electoral Pacts & Abstentionism

Electoral pacts have happened in Northern Irish elections before, however, this time around the dynamic has been altered by Brexit.

The Remain/Leave fault line has led to pacts coming around quite easily. Parties in certain constituencies have agreed to step aside, in order to help boost the chances of certain candidates keeping their seats of running against an incumbent.

In North Belfast, the SDLP have decided not to stand a candidate for the first time in the party’s history, in order to boost the chances for Sinn Fein’s John Finucane. In the 2017 general election, Finucane missed out on the top spot, loosing by just 2,000 votes to Nigel Dodds of the DUP. Sinn Fein have reciprocated the offer by not standing a candidate in South Belfast to boost the chances of Claire Hanna of the SDLP.

This so called “remain alliance” was strengthened by the Green Party’s decision to not stand any candidates in the Belfast constituencies.

The UUP, too, are not running a candidate in North Belfast in order to aid the DUP’s chances of electoral success. The DUP reciprocated, by agreeing not to stand a candidate in the Fermanagh South Tyrone constituency to boost the odds for the UUP’s Tom Elliott.

Alliance, the only party not engaging in any electoral pacts, are running a candidate in all of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies.

As occurs in every general election, Sinn Fein have faced criticism for their policy of abstentionism. This policy means that although the party run for Westminster elections, they do not take their seats in the House of Commons. They do this as they believe the interests of the Irish people can only be represented by democratic institutions in Ireland, not in Westminster.

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