Brian Feeney: The big question for this election is if the raison d’etre for the north is gone

Will Sinn Féin and SDLP votes for the first time deliver more MPs than the DUP and UUP?

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

Seven Sinn Féin candidates were elected MPs, with John Finucane becoming the first nationalist to hold the Belfast seat since its creation. Picture by Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker.
Seven Sinn Féin candidates were elected MPs in 2019, with John Finucane becoming the first nationalist to hold the North Belfast seat since its creation. Will there be more nationalists than unionists elected this time?

Fighting a British general election in the north is an anomaly. Strangely, most of the parties here don’t realise that. They talk as if they’re in Britain.

When Sunak announced the election, one party figure responded: “It’s operation ‘remove the Tories’.” No it isn’t. There are no Tories here. Removing the Tories has got nothing to do with anyone here.

It’s the job of the British Labour party, which correctly doesn’t even organise here. Why not? Not because of their usual duplicitous answer, that it’s a sister party of the SDLP, duh, but because the north isn’t part of Britain, and as the useless Karen Bradley didn’t know, politics here isn’t organised along British lines. Here isn’t Britain.

Actually the most honest and realistic reason for engaging in the election was given by Naomi Long. She said: “Issues such as financial and political stability of the assembly [are] expected to dominate the local political agenda at Westminster in the next Parliament.”

So, if elected, she can stand up at Northern Ireland Questions and bang on about that. Not that it will make a damn bit of difference, but at least she’s not talking codswallop about ‘taking on the Tories’.

The moment Naomi Long's Alliance Party come to the view that the time for a border poll has come, the political game changes overnight
Alliance leader Naomi Long said issues such as the financial and political stability of the assembly are expected to dominate the agenda at Westminster in the next parliament

And by the way, as an aside, the carping about Long remaining as a Stormont toy-town minister while campaigning for election is rubbish. How does Rishi Sunak and his entire cabinet do it while they’re supposedly running the UK? No comparison.

Of course unionists participate because it reinforces their identity as British subjects, even though they’re fully aware they’re not treated as such by the British MPs, who regularly refer to their contingent as ‘the Irish’.

Unionists also have a touching delusion that in the event of a hung parliament (which there isn’t going to be), they can control how the British government treats this place. Needless to say the British indulge that delusion.

Unionists have never learnt what it took their hero Carson decades to realise. As he admitted in his maiden speech in the Lords in December 1921, “What a fool I was. I was only a puppet and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative party into power.”

Unionists have never learnt what it took their hero Carson decades to realise: ‘I was only a puppet and so was Ulster’

That relationship has never changed. The DUP held the balance of power from 2017 to 2019. That went well, didn’t it?

No, the question in the election here is completely different from that in Britain, namely how badly have the DUP been damaged by being taken for yet another ride by the Conservatives?

Can the unthinkable happen and Belfast, once the centre of unionist power, become a unionist-free zone? Or at least a city with no MP formally designated unionist, for Naomi Long is a liberal small ‘u’ unionist and Claire Hanna, who will be re-elected for the new Belfast South and Mid-Down seat, is indistinguishable from Alliance in her policies and public utterances.

Claire Hanna, SDLP candidate for Belfast South, at the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast, where the counting of votes continues in the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday May 6, 2016. See PA story ULSTER Election. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire.
Claire Hanna is defending her SDLP Westminster seat in the new South Belfast and Mid Down constituency

We don’t know yet if Jim Allister will carry through on his threat to challenge any DUP candidate who supports what he calls ‘the Donaldson deal’, or indeed if he intends to put his money where his mouth is and stand against Ian Óg in North Antrim.

If he does put up candidates as he promised, he could hand Lagan Valley to Alliance, but on the other hand the TUV has always had a dearth of credible figures so a token protest vote is more likely. After all, the vast majority of unionists supported the return to Stormont and the recent LucidTalk poll shows the TUV still languishing on 8%.

TUV's Jim Allister and his wife Ruth pictured after Mr Allister becomes the first MLA elected for North Antrim, at the Ballymena count. Picture by Cliff Donaldson 
TUV leader Jim Allister and his wife Ruth pictured after his election as an MLA for North Antrim

In the end the big question for this election, completely different from the one on the other island, will be in two parts.

Will Sinn Féin and SDLP votes for the first time deliver more MPs than the DUP and UUP?

Secondly, will the combined nationalist vote be larger than the combined unionist vote, as it was for the first time in last May’s council elections?

Why do those questions matter? Simple: they provide answers to fundamental questions. A combined total of more Sinn Féin and SDLP MPs than unionists shows that the purpose of the north of Ireland as a sub-polity of the UK no longer obtains. The raison d’etre of the north has gone. This conclusion would be reinforced by the total nationalist vote outnumbering the total unionist vote.

More importantly, taken together, these two answers would reinforce the demand to complete the provision in the Good Friday Agreement to hold a referendum on reunification.