Brexit Institute News

The UK Election in Northern Ireland and its Effect on Anglo-Irish Relations

Feargal Cochrane (University of Warwick)

At first glance the elections results in Northern Ireland seem relatively unremarkable. However, there are a number of significant implications for the main parties and potentially for the political future of Northern Ireland itself. 

Before getting into the winners and losers, the first headline of the election was that the results confirmed the broad direction of travel in terms of Northern Ireland’s basic political geography. Nationalist parties are in the ascendency while unionist representation continues to fracture. For the first time ever, Sinn Fein became the largest party with seven seats, the same number as they returned in 2019. Sinn Fein will continue their abstentionist policy towards Westminster, so while they have returned seven MPs, they won’t actually sit in the House of Commons. Sinn Fein also have the largest share of the vote, despite not standing candidates in four of the eighteen constituencies, which makes this even more significant. 

This is a historic moment for Sinn Fein as it completes the hat-trick of being the largest party in the NI seats in the House of Commons, in the Northern Ireland Assembly and in local government. This trend is compounded by the fact that the SDLP retained their seats in Foyle and in South Belfast, while significant gains were made by Sinn Fein in the erstwhile rock solid unionist seat of East Londonderry, which the DUP’s Gregory Campbell won by a paltry 179 votes following a full recount and will be a target for Sinn Fein in the next Westminster election.

In terms of the personalities, the big story of the election was undoubtedly Ian Paisley Jnr losing his seat in North Antrim to unionist rival Jim Allister, leader of Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). This seat had been in the hands of the Paisley family for 54 years, so it was a shock that Allister overturned Paisley’s majority. The TUV has campaigned consistently against the Brexit deal and Windsor Framework (WF) and Jim Allister, the party’s only MLA, skilfully exposed the DUP’s pragmatic climbdown over its former opposition to the terms of the Brexit settlement. The DUP vote has also been badly damaged by scandal over recent months. The party that was once the political wing of evangelical Protestantism had to bear witness to its former leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, resigning after he was charged with historical sex offences involving children. Donaldson and his wife appeared in court in Northern Ireland the day before the election, Sir Jeffrey charged with 18 offences including the rape of a child. While both have pleaded not guilty, the DUP was certainly rocked by their former leader’s spectacular fall from grace. 

Donaldson’s former seat, Lagan Valley, another safe unionist seat, was won by Sorcha Eastwood of the centrist Alliance Party with a healthy majority of just under 3,000. The one crumb of comfort for the DUP was that its current leader Gavin Robinson hung on in East Belfast despite a strong challenge from Alliance Party leader Naomi Long. Had Robinson lost there would have been no unionist representation in Belfast and the DUP’s political problems would have reached existential proportions. 

So the state of the parties after the election was; Sinn Fein on 7, (-) DUP on 5 (-3) SDLP 2 (-) Ulster Unionist Party 1 (+1) Alliance 1 (-) TUV 1 (+1) Independent Unionist 1 (+1) 

The obvious political point that will flow from Sinn Fein’s replacement of the DUP as the largest party, relates to the constitutional future of Northern Ireland as set out in the text of the Good Friday Agreement. It provides yet another metric to indicate that the nationalist political identity now outnumbers the unionist one and raises a question for the new Secretary of State about whether the circumstances now exist for the triggering of a Border Poll on Irish reunification under the terms set out in the GFA. While Sinn Fein have already made this point there are no indications that the new UK government will be sympathetic to their case. 

The appointment of Hilary Benn as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is a positive signal that the incoming government is going to fulfil its role as a co-guarantor of the GFA. Benn’s appointment is a signal from Prime Minister Starmer that he values the GFA and understands the need to stand by the spirit as well as the letter of the agreement reached in April 1998. This includes observing the UK’s international treaty obligations and seeking to rebuild the trust between the government in London and its counterpart in Dublin that was so badly damaged by the Conservative government since the Brexit referendum in 2016. 

The Anglo-Irish relationship has certainly taken a hammering in recent years but Starmer has indicated that it his priority to restore it. This could be done relatively quickly and Benn’s meetings with the First and deputy First Ministers within hours of his appointment along with Starmer’s scheduled trip to Belfast this week, are good signs. Irish Taoiseach Simon Harris has, for his part, accepted an invitation to Downing Street on 17 July and emphasised his desire to engage closely with the new government. All sides are talking about a major reset moment in the Anglo-Irish relationship and more harmonious relations between the two governments can only benefit politics in Northern Ireland. 

In practical terms this means embracing the Windsor Framework and all other aspects of the Brexit agreements that the previous government made with the European Union. 

The Legacy Act introduced by the Tory government, which came into effect in May 2024 against the wishes of all political parties and victims groups in Northern Ireland, is all but dead. Hilary Benn has made a commitment to replacing it with something that is more consistent with the wishes of victims, and with international human rights standards. 

Key issues remain with respect to the level of public funding provided to Northern Ireland, the willingness of the Executive to bring forward revenue raising policies to help chronically underfunded public services and specific issues such as the British government’s commitment to supporting the redevelopment of Casement Park stadium in time for the hosting of Euro 2028. 

There will inevitably be disappointments and battles with the Treasury in the months and years ahead. However, the provision of political stability in London and a restored Anglo-Irish relationship provides some hope that progress will be made. 

Feargal Cochrane is Professor (Research Focused) in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, and Emeritus Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. His most recent book, Belfast: The Story of a City and its People was published in paperback by Yale University Press in May 2024. 

The views expressed in this blog post are the position of the author and not necessarily those of the Brexit Institute blog. 

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.