Dr Éamon Phoenix: Unionism shocked to the core
"The Unionist majority in the Assembly has been ended." So declared Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams at an press conference on Saturday. As the dust dies down over last week’s Assembly election, this has to be the most dramatic outcome.
Unionism, which has enjoyed almost a century of almost unchallenged dominance at Stormont, is reduced to a combined total of 40 seats in the new 90-seat Assembly as against a combined total of 39 held by Sinn Féin and the SDLP.
Alliance with eight MLAs, two Greens, and a single People Before Profit MLA make up the rest. Only 1,200 votes separate the DUP and Sinn Féin.
Lord Craigavon (James Craig), the architect of Northern Ireland, must be literally turning in his grave.
The state of Northern Ireland was established by the Tory-dominated British government in 1920 to create the ‘Protestant homeland’ demanded by Craig and his armed Ulster Volunteers in response to the threat of an all-Ireland Parliament in Dublin. Following the First World War in 1919, the Lloyd George coalition unveiled its plan for partition with separate parliaments both north and south.
For the Unionists, backed by their British Conservative allies, the overriding aim was to secure a permanent Unionist majority in the new state. It was essential, therefore, that the Northern state was based on a crude sectarian head-count. As Edward Carson put it, the six-county area was only approved after ‘going into the issue almost parish by parish and townland by townland.’
When the Long Committee, which drew up the partitionist blueprint at Westminster, recommended a nine-county Northern Ireland –the historic Ulster of the Covenant -this was rejected by Craig who argued that a six- county state was essential if ‘Protestant representation was to be strengthened’; nine counties (with a 44 per cent nationalist minority) would be ‘ungovernable’, he told ministers. The British government capitulated and the resulting six-county state had a built-in 66 per cent Protestant majority and a permanent one-third Catholic minority.
The mathematical precision of Craig’s sectarian calculations was confirmed in the first Northern general election in 1921. Craig’s call for ‘the Union Jack to sweep the polls’ ensured that Unionism, with 66 per cent of the vote, won 40 of the 52 seats in the new Belfast Parliament. The Nationalists and Sinn Féin, with one third of the vote cast against ‘the mutilation of the nation’ secured just 12 seats between them.
For the next 40 years the Unionist monolith seemed invincible as successive one-party Unionist governments under Andrews, Brookeborough, and O’Neill commanded the bulk of seats at Stormont.
Even in 1969, when Unionism split on the issue of Civil Rights reform, Unionism still held 39 of the 52 seats in the local Parliament. The Nationalist vote had declined over the years as the old Nationalist Party of Cahir Healy and Eddie McAteer contested only safe Nationalist seats.
Many seats on both sides went uncontested. So the overall Nationalist vote fell from a high of 27 per cent in the 1949 election (when the Anti-Partition League launched a determined election campaign) to just 8.4 per cent in 1964. Though Labour and Independents made some impact in Belfast, Unionism and the Union remained supreme.
This remained the case even in the power-sharing Assembly of 1974 where Unionism, albeit split between Brian Faulkner’s pro-Sunningdale section and the ‘Majority Rulers’ under Paisley and , still held 50 of the 78 seats in the Assembly- a commanding majority for the Union. The Nationalists, represented by the SDLP, held only 19 seats with 22 per cent of the vote- a record showing at the time.
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 saw an upsurge in the overall Nationalist vote to almost 40 per , but Unionists still controlled a majority of seats (58 out of 108) in the new Assembly.
Since 1998, the Nationalist vote has shown a sharp downturn while pro-Union voter turnout remained steady. All that changed last week, however. In response to a series of factors- the RHI scandal; Arlene Foster’s strident anti-nationalist rhetoric; Paul Givan’s pointed removal of Irish language bursaries and the all-pervasive shadow of Brexit- nationalism mobilised as never before.
The resulting loss of a Unionist majority at Stormont for the first time has shocked Unionism to its core. The political and, especially, the psychological implications of this as the centenary of Partition approaches in 2021, should not be underestimated.
- Dr Éamon Phoenix is a political historian and a member of the Taoiseach’s Expert Advisory Group on Centenaries.