Brian Feeney: The tectonic plates of politics here have shifted irrevocably

Unionists should see the writing on the wall and start thinking of their inevitable future

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

Sinn Fein’s Pat Cullen celebrates with Sinn Fein’s Vice President Michelle O’Neill (second left and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald (second right) after winning the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency .
Sinn Féin’s Pat Cullen celebrates with party leaders Michelle O’Neill (second left) and Mary Lou McDonald (second right) following her victory in Fermanagh & South Tyrone (Niall Carson/PA)

In the aftermath of this election there’s been an inordinate focus on the turmoil in unionism, particularly the accelerating decline of the DUP, down from eight to five Westminster seats.

The true picture is that in terms of the election here – a completely different one from that in Britain – Sinn Féin won a resounding victory, returning with the largest number of seats, the biggest vote and share of the vote. That’s some achievement given that it didn’t stand in four seats. The party also gave notice that in the next election it will win more, most obviously East Derry, which Gregory Campbell clung on to by his finger nails.

In the contest within nationalism, Sinn Féin emerged as the clear winner with 67% of the overall nationalist vote, routing other contenders. In most constituencies there was a swing from SDLP to SF, most notably in Foyle where it was 13%, with the SDLP share of the vote falling 17%.

Across the board the swing to Sinn Féin was 4%. Its greatest breakthrough was in Fermanagh & South Tyrone with its outstanding candidate Pat Cullen coming in with a majority of 4,571. The constituency will never again be unionist.

There’s an unmistakable message in these results. The people who vote for the largest party in the north of Ireland and the party which represents most people in the north want nothing to do with Westminster. It’s an extraordinary state of affairs.

That’s a message both the British and Irish governments need to accept and understand. It’s a message which demonstrates graphically, statistically and politically the change which has taken place here and which continues to develop dynamically. It’s the outward and visible sign of the demographic restructuring of the north, with the unionist community on a down escalator which is gathering pace.

Unionism has lost its majority in all elected fora in the north: Westminster, assembly and councils. It’s no good unionists wishing away the fact of demographic and political change with the excuse of split unionist voting. There aren’t enough unionists any more and secondly, pursuing unionist unity is like ‘The Hunting of the Snark’, which Lewis Carroll subtitled ‘An Agony in Eight Fits’. The tectonic plates of politics here have shifted irrevocably.

The election results should prompt unionists to see the writing on the wall and start thinking of their inevitable future

The election also undermined the ‘Alliance surge’, so beloved of the bien pensants in the media and Dublin 4 and Micheál Martin. The strong anti-Brexit sentiment that fuelled the big Alliance vote in 2019 has dissipated in North Down and there’s been no surge west of the Bann.

Sorcha Eastwood pulled off a tremendous coup in Lagan Valley and how much the Donaldson factor contributed is unknown. However, her victory reinforced the strong anti-DUP sentiment among young, educated, middle-class professional unionists also demonstrated by Robin Swann’s success in South Antrim.

Alliance's Sorcha Eastwood celebrates with party colleagues Eoin Tennyson (right) and David Honeyford at the South Lake Leisure Centre in Craigavon, Co Armagh after winning the Lagan Valley seat. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/PA Wire (Oliver McVeigh/Oliver McVeigh/PA Wire)

To turn to the outcome in Britain, the consequences affecting Ireland will be an immediate return to closer Dublin-London relations, the use of the term ‘co-guarantor’ of the Good Friday Agreement which the ousted, lying, corrupt, venal Conservatives never used, and the honouring of ‘rigorous impartiality’ by London, ignored since 2010. All that will improve relations in the north between nationalists and unionists.

Finally, though, it’s probably too much to hope for, but the election results should prompt unionists, particularly the DUP, to see the writing on the wall, discern the arrow pointing in one direction and start thinking of their inevitable future. That requires leadership, so far absent.