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Northern Ireland’s Impact on a New UK Government

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Over the course of the next few weeks, we will examine the General Election from the perspective of each of the regions and nations of the UK. First, we look at the political landscape in Northern Ireland and the impact that the vote in Northern Ireland might have for the rest of the UK.

A New Beginning

Whilst it might not seem like it these days the one part of the United Kingdom that is undoubtedly in a better place than it was in 1997 is Northern Ireland. But Brexit has reopened the 100 year old fault line around the border even if it now seems to have moved east of Carlingford and into the middle of the Irish Sea.

The province enjoyed a period of relative stability following the restoration of democracy that was delivered by the last Labour government’s Good Friday Agreement. But it has had a rough few years of late as Unionists weakened by the growing electoral dominance of Sinn Féin brought out their 1980’s playbook and demanded concessions over the Protocol.

The DUP’s agreement to restore power sharing has led to increased internal tensions ahead of the traditional Unionist Marching Season and tensions have also been rising in Republican communities as thoughts of a future border poll bubbles once again to the surface given Sinn Féin’s poll lead on both sides of the border.

Hope for a new beginning flickered briefly for a month under the new leadership team of its first nationalist first minister Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin – and the country’s first nationalist first minister) and her deputy Emma Little-Pengelly from the DUP.

Stormy Seas

But within weeks the filing of charges against DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson over serious historic sexual offences sent shock waves throughout the political establishment and could yet undermine his efforts to bring his Party back in from the cold and Stormont out of the deep freeze.

The DUP quickly appointed deputy leader Gavin Robinson, the MP for East Belfast and from the progressive side of the party as interim leader and a battle is currently raging for the now vacant deputy role. The leading candidates include Little-Pengelly, a Robinson supporter who inherited his seat in Stormont and Edwin Poots the newly elected Speaker at Stormont, a brief former leader of the party and young Earth creationist who is from the wing of the party that are unhappy with the ‘Donaldson Deal’ as it has become known. Thankfully, at this stage, there seems to be no desire from either side to collapse the Assembly.

A parliamentary general election is also due soon south of the border but they too have had a recent shock with the resignation of Leo Varadkar and the crowning of the country’s youngest ever Taoiseach Simon Harris. The 33rdil Éireann will likely now run its full term with elections due by March next year. Sinn Féin once riding high have seen their lead in the southern polls slip recently but they are still the party to beat on both sides of the border.

Impact on the Outcome

It is rare that the outcome of elections in Northern Ireland determine who takes up residence in 10 Downing Street but one of Rishi Sunak’s last remaining straws to clutch is that Keir Starmer and Labour implode between now and the UK general election and the DUP rides to his party’s rescue once again in a hung parliament.

Labour’s sister party the SDLP will try to hold onto their two seats but the DUP will find it hard to keep a hold of their eight having seen their support slump in recent years as their more fundamentalist supporters cry foul over sell outs and betrayals and switch their allegiance to the TUV. The TUVs pact with the Reform party will doubtless provide the TUV with funding to challenge the DUP and the UUP for traditional unionist votes.

Even before the latest crisis the polls didn’t look good for the DUP, down 7% from their 2019 result, and their interim Leader Gavin Robinson in under the biggest threat from the non-sectarian Alliance in East Belfast.

Sinn Féin should bounce back from a poor showing in 2019 to consolidate its position as the biggest party in Northern Ireland and possibly threaten the SDLP leader, Colm Eastwood, in Foyle.

But politics in Northern Ireland is rarely straightforward and electoral pacts between the parties may well deliver the status quo in most of the seats.

Implications for UK

The biggest impact may well be on the workload of the new First Lord of the Treasury should Starmer prevail and form the next government. He and his team along with the UK civil service will have their work cut out getting to know and understand the dynamics of a potentially fast changing Northern Irish political environment.

He will need to ensure the stability of the Assembly and maintain a functioning Executive that has been starved of political leadership and an adequate budget for over two years. Whoever takes on the role of the indomitable Mo Mowlam will have their work cut out but the current incumbent, Hilary Benn and his team, are throwing themselves into their roles and appreciate the weight of history that may soon fall on their shoulders.

The Labour team are also doing their utmost to exorcise the ghosts of Brexit past from this election however even if they are successful in doing that in the short-term they may well return with a vengeance to haunt the inbox of new incoming PM. The UK’s relationship with its largest trading partner was severely tested during the negotiations with Johnson’s government and the UK’s sole land border with its closest EU neighbour became a focal point and one of the toughest nuts to crack.

This June’s election to the European Parliament will also see change come to the make-up of the EU Commission and the results in Ireland could see big gains for Sinn Féin as well as the first test of the public’s reaction to its new Taoiseach.

Blair’s government benefitted from an engaged and constructive American administration led by Bill Clinton and aided by Senator George Mitchell. A change in administration in November’s Presidential elections may offer a whole host of headaches for a left of centre UK Prime Minister including a new dynamic in Washington DC.

With the possibility of new PMs in both London and Dublin, a younger generation driving the Executive in Belfast and new faces in the EU Commission there is hope that new relationships can be forged, a fresh start can be made and a new chapter can be written for the Province.

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