“All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.” Thus wrote William Butler Yeats in the year 1916. Of course, he was referring to the events of the Easter Rising, although I hope he would forgive me for tentatively applying his words to the recent general election. To say that it was a historic election might be an understatement. The electoral map of Britain has been redrawn. Labour’s once-impenetrable red wall in the north of England crumbled beneath a wave of Tory blue, resulting in a thumping majority for the Conservative Party. While Labour won most of the seats in Wales, their majority was noticeably reduced. Meanwhile, Scottish nationalism is still in its ascendency as the SNP dominated Scotland, winning 48 out of the available 59 seats with 45% of the vote share. Then there’s the north of Ireland where, for the first time since partition nearly a 100 years ago, nationalist and republican parties hold more Westminster seats than unionists. The question is raised, what does this mean for the Union?
Let’s start with England. Boris’ gamble paid off big time. He romped through the election campaign on the singular issue of Brexit and he was rewarded with a majority of 80 seats, the biggest Tory majority since 1987 and more than enough to “Get Brexit Done”. While Labour, with 203 seats, reflects on what went wrong, Boris will seek the swift implementation of his Withdrawal Agreement. One of the most controversial elements of this agreement is the so-called Irish Sea border, as the north of Ireland remains in the EU’s customs union and maintains close alignment with its single market. This means that checks will need to take place on goods travelling to and from Britain, although the exact nature and extent of these checks is debated.
Some have claimed that this will lead to an “economic united Ireland”; the North remaining economically aligned with the rest of Ireland while Britain diverges further and further away. This issue is a major bugbear for the DUP who, despite supporting Brexit in principle, recently voted against Boris’ Withdrawal Agreement Bill alongside the new SDLP and Alliance MPs. Although the devil is in the detail, and Britain has a long way to go before leaving the EU in tot, the Irish Sea border presents a big challenge to unionism, and the Union.
The next big talking point from the election is Scotland. The SNP has a large majority of seats (80% to be precise) and arguably a larger mandate for a second Scottish independence referendum than Boris has for his version of Brexit. Nicola Sturgeon has a strong democratic case for requesting such a referendum, but it is a foregone conclusion that Boris will deny her, and the people of Scotland, another opportunity for independence. This puts Scotland and England on a constitutional collision course, with both the SNP and Tories claiming that they have a mandate for their respective positions. The public desire in Scotland for a second independence referendum, if not independence itself, is clear. It seems to me that the longer Boris blocks a referendum, the stronger support for independence will grow.
In the north of Ireland, the DUP has lost its majority, falling from 10 to 8 seats. The loss of Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s then-Westminster leader, was a huge blow to the party. In turn, it was a huge success for Sinn Féin, whose candidate John Finucane won the North Belfast seat with a majority of nearly 2,000 votes. Adding to the DUP’s woes was their unexpected failure to take North Down, a seat that has been in the party’s sights for a long time. The overall result was a resounding rejection of the DUP’s Brexit project, among other issues (anyone remember the RHI scandal?).
Furthermore, Sinn Féin and the SDLP have a total of 9 seats altogether, one more than the DUP. This means that unionists no longer have majority representation at local, Stormont, Westminster, or EU level. This is a watershed moment in the history of the North. Talk of a border poll abounds yet again as we approach the threshold to trigger one, stipulated in the Good Friday Agreement. The combined nationalist/republican share of the vote was 37.7% to unionists’ 42.3%. It is a bittersweet irony that, on the centenary of partition, nationalist and republican parties may enjoy greater support than unionist parties.
As far as the election results go, it doesn’t bode well for the Union. However, people vote for a multitude of different reasons, and grand constitutional questions may not be high on their list of priorities. That said, going by polling research, the picture is largely the same; support for a united Ireland is growing whereas support for the Union is waning.
Earlier this year, Lord Ashcroft commissioned a survey to test the constitutional water in the north of Ireland. He reported that support for a united Ireland sits at 46% compared to 45% for the Union, or 51% to 49% once the undecided/non-voters were excluded. Interestingly, support for Irish unity is stronger among the younger generations: 60% of those aged 18 to 24 support a united Ireland, as do 55% of those aged 25-44, and 51% aged 45-64. In fact, the only age demographic where support for the Union prevailed was among those aged 65+. This may partly explain the electoral trends; younger people tend support a united Ireland whereas those who support the Union are entering their sunset years.
A common retort against arguments for Irish unity is that “the South doesn’t want us”. This is an empirical question and one that polling research has already answered (spoiler: the answer is they do). In a RED C exit poll for RTÉ and TG4, from the simultaneous local and European elections in the South earlier this year, 65% of voters responded that they would vote for a united Ireland compared to 19% against (or 77% to 23% when the undecided/non-voters were excluded). Exit polls provide some of the most reliable data on voting intentions so the argument that people in the South wouldn’t vote for a united Ireland simply doesn’t hold water.
This begs a different question – does Britain want us? Again, polling research holds the answer. A recent survey by YouGov reported that only 35% of Britons want the north of Ireland to remain in the Union whereas 15% support a united Ireland (the remainder didn’t know or didn’t care). The general mood can be described as ambivalent if not apathetic. The picture changes once Brexit is brought into the equation, though not in favour of the Union. If given a choice between their preferred Brexit outcome (i.e. Remain or Leave) or the north of Ireland staying in the Union, a majority of 58% chose the former and only 18% the latter. Whether they supported remaining in the EU, leaving the EU, or were one of the 35% who expressed general support the Union with the North, a majority prioritised Brexit over the Union every time. It speaks volumes that the British public puts more stock in a three-year-old portmanteau than their centuries-old constitutional, political, and economic union across these islands.
What of the Tories? Surely the Conservative and Unionist Party would prioritise the Union? Alas, it appears that this is not the case. From another YouGov survey, this time among Conservative Party members, 59% responded that they would support Brexit even if it meant the north of Ireland leaving the Union (63% would also support Brexit even if it meant Scotland leaving the Union). This is bad news for unionists since the Tories are not only in power, they are in power with a large majority. They will decide the outcome of Brexit and the future of Britain, with or without the north of Ireland.
To summarise, support for and against a united Ireland is neck-and-neck in the North. Unionist parties no longer have a majority at any level of representation. People living south of the border would welcome us with open arms while the British public shrug their shoulders. Scotland is on the cusp of independence and an economic border is about the be drawn down the Irish Sea. Overall, it paints a bleak picture for those who support the Union.
It also provides an important opportunity to pause, take stock, and engage with each other about the future. Nationalist or unionist, republican or loyalist, aligned or unaligned, this island is home to all of us. Each and every one of us deserves to be part of the national conversation about the constitutional trajectory of our country (even though we may disagree on what we mean by “our country”). Whether it’s to express your hopes or voice your concerns, no one has anything to fear from talking to one another. It is also incumbent upon political parties and the Irish and British governments to encourage and facilitate this dialogue.
Based on the evidence, we are heading towards a border poll. It is crucial that everyone, from all walks of life, is able to have their say and shape the discussion around what our shared future will look like. I, for one, look forward to a future in a new and united Ireland, where everyone feels included, every community is respected, and where equality and rights are guaranteed. Surely there’s something in that for everyone.
Cormac Begley is a Sinn Féin member and activist.