Cormac Moore: Changing electoral map shows need for border poll criteria

Elections of the past put the shifting electoral patterns into context

Cormac Moore

Cormac Moore

Historian Cormac Moore is a columnist with The Irish News and editor of On This Day.

DUP veteran Gregory Campbell scraped home in East Derry with just 179 votes to spare against Sinn Féin's Kathleen McGurk (Niall Carson/Niall Carson/PA Wire)

For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, a nationalist party has won the most seats in a Westminster election. By Sinn Féin retaining its seven seats and the DUP losing three of its eight, another historic electoral milestone was reached.

With the SDLP also retaining its two seats, there are more nationalist than unionist MPs for the second Westminster election in a row. Considering how Northern Ireland was established to guarantee a permanent unionist majority, this is another significant symbolic moment, unimaginable in 1921 and even in recent memory.

Elections of the past put the shifting electoral patterns into context.

The first election ever held in the north, the “partition election” to the Northern Ireland parliament in May 1921, resulted in the UUP winning 40 of the 52 seats. The remaining 12 were divided equally between Sinn Féin and Joe Devlin’s United Irish League.

Throughout the existence of the Stormont parliament, the UUP dominated every contest, winning anywhere from 32 to 40 seats each time. The main bright spot for nationalists for almost all elections was in Tyrone and Fermanagh, providing a shade of green in an otherwise orange electoral map.

Some unionists tried to deny that nationalist success, with one, solicitor Edmund Orr, claiming in his submission to the Boundary Commission in 1925 that there was a majority against the Irish Free State in both counties in the election to the northern parliament that year, as unionists and republicans secured 46,603 votes versus 36,090 for the Nationalist Party, an anti-Free State majority of 10,513.

Orr failed to mention, of course, that unionists and republicans had very differing views on practically everything else, including on partition itself.

Westminster elections up until the recent past have been dominated by unionist parties too. The UUP won 11 of the 13 Westminster seats in the first UK-wide general election post-partition in 1922. Historically nationalists were again only competitive in Tyrone and Fermanagh, where they regularly won two seats.

The UUP won all 13 seats in the 1924 election and again won all seats (reduced to 12 from 1950) in the 1959 and 1964 UK general elections. Anti-Sunningdale unionists won 11 of the 12 Westminster seats in February 1974 and as recently as 1997, the last time there was a Labour Party landslide, unionists won 13 of the 18 Westminster seats.

Unionists claim the percentage that identify as nationalist has remained stagnant since the Good Friday Agreement and that Sinn Féin’s successes have been almost exclusively at the expense of the SDLP. While electorally, nationalist numbers have reached nowhere near 50 per cent since 1998, nationalist seat numbers have, on the most part, tended to project upwards. The opposite is true of unionists, who have been haemorrhaging vote share and seats since then.

A striking feature of the election last week was that Sinn Féin retained all its seats and increased its vote share after a very lacklustre campaign by its standards, encapsulated by its flimsy manifesto. Not only has Sinn Féin kept its seven seats, but the marginal ones have become safe seats.

Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill celebrate the election of Pat Cullen in Fermanagh & South Tyrone. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire (Niall Carson/Niall Carson/PA Wire)

While virtually the only green visible in northern electoral maps of the past was found in Tyrone and Fermanagh, increasingly the shades of orange are being collapsed almost solely into parts of Antrim and Down.

Unsurprisingly, Jim Allister’s victory over Ian Paisley Jnr was the most eye-catching result from last week, but for me the most significant contest was in East Derry, where Sinn Féin’s Kathleen McGurk came within a whisker of defeating the DUP’s Gregory Campbell, a seat he has held since 2001. One of the safest unionist seats in the north is now a marginal one and could soon turn green.

It is important to note that people vote for a myriad of reasons, even though there is a strong tendency for many in the north to vote along constitutional lines. Despite nationalists winning more seats than unionists, unionists have argued that they won a higher share of the vote.

This can be misleading, however, as Sinn Féin did not contest four of the constituencies and some of the lowest turnouts in a contest that saw incredibly low numbers were in nationalist-held constituencies.

Take, for example, the 1918 general election, the last all-Ireland contest, where Sinn Féin won 73 out of the 105 seats in Ireland on just 46.9 per cent of the vote. Its vote share would have been far higher if the votes from the 25 uncontested seats it won were considered.

While last week’s election was a triumph for Sinn Féin, the results in Britain do not necessarily help the cause for Irish unity. The SNP’s disastrous election has put back Scottish independence for some time, showing the dangers of dependency on one party on constitutional issues.

The attacks by some Sinn Féin supporters on the decision by the SDLP’s Cara Hunter to run in East Derry, which they claim spurned Sinn Féin’s chances of taking the seat, are not helpful, particularly when no pact was agreed upon and, as the SNP example shows, Irish nationalism cannot be the preserve of one party. If Sinn Féin is the only voice of Irish nationalism, there will be no united Ireland.

By Sinn Féin retaining its seven seats and the DUP losing three of its eight, another historic electoral milestone was reached

While Keir Starmer’s government will do much to undo the serious damage caused by the truly appalling Tory one it replaced, it is important to note that Labour governments have not been, despite the hopes beforehand and the exception of the 1997-2010 Labour administrations, cognisant of Irish nationalism in government.

Starmer has declared himself a committed unionist and both he, and his northern secretary of state, Hilary Benn, claim a border poll is not on the horizon. Based on what criteria though? Are they just based on opinion polls, which are often spectacularly wrong? Do Starmer and Benn factor in election results which, while not showing that nationalists hold a majority, do demonstrate clearly that unionists have lost theirs for good?

To allow transparency to replace uncertainty, the criteria required for a border poll to be called should be announced without delay by the Labour government, particularly given how much the northern electoral map has changed, not just since 1921, but since 1998 too.