Northern Ireland

Analysis: Westminster’s status has diminished in the eyes of the electorate

With devolution back on track the public increasingly looks to Stormont rather than London for solutions

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak issues his election statement outside 10 Downing Street
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announces a general election for July 4. PICTURE: STEFAN ROUSSEAU (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The starting gun has been fired on the 2024 Westminster election campaign – and with it begins the 43-day countdown to what many hope will be the Tories’ last day in office for some time.

While the Labour administration that is expected to replace Rishi Sunak’s government may not instil too much confidence among some voters, there is a sense that `things can only get better’.

The Conservative government’s austerity agenda, its once far-too-cosy relationship with the DUP and a disregard for justice in relation to legacy have made it deeply unpopular with a majority of people in Northern Ireland.

On legacy, Labour has already said a future government would restore inquests and the ability for Troubles victims to bring civil cases.

And let’s not forget bungling Boris Johnson, the hapless Liz Truss and Brexit, an unprecedented act of self-harm that’ll have negative implications in Ireland for decades to come.

But apart from the opportunity the July 4 poll offers for ending 14 years of Tory misrule, how significant is this election to the people of the north?

All elections are important but some are more important than others.

The last two general elections have taken place while devolution was dormant, and latterly that didn’t help Sinn Féin or the DUP.

A general view of Parliament Buildings in the Stormont Estate
Does Stormont's restoration diminish the importance of Westminster? PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY

However, with Stormont back and an apparent focus on ensuring the institutions are stable and sustainable, the public are seemingly less concerned about who represents them on Westminster’s green benches.

There will, of course, be intense interest around the outcomes in Lagan Valley and East Belfast, DUP seats that are vulnerable.

The intra-nationalist contest in Foyle between the SDLP and Sinn Féin will be interesting, as will Claire Hanna’s bid to defend a reconfigured South Belfast, potentially without a pact.

Eyes will also be on North Down, where Stephen Farry became the constituency’s first non-unionist MP in 2019, while Health Minister Robin Swann’s effort to unseat Paul Girvan in South Antrim will likely draw more media attention than it ordinarily would.

But beyond little more than a handful of seats, no significant changes are anticipated.

The fact that devolution at Stormont, like in Scotland and Wales, has been in place for 25 year, albeit intermittently, also serves to diminish Westminster’s importance in the eyes of the electorate.

Our MLAs may have little real power and refuse to countenance revenue raising yet the public still look to their regional legislature when problems arise.

It also apparent that this Tory administration and its English MPs’ at times zealous focus on severing ties with the EU has undermined the value of the union and therefore Westminster’s status, as well as its allure to the north’s politicians.

Sinn Féin has already said that non of its Stormont ministers will be running in the the July 4 poll, while other parties have been reticent in declaring their candidates.

The symbolism of electoral defeats and victories will always be important but in what may well be the final years of the United Kingdom as we know it, its sovereign parliament’s historic prominence looks to be waning.