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Working towards Irish Unity

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Opinion

Election-2024

UK Union looking weaker. Irish Unity looking stronger.

The Westminster elections have delivered an extraordinary result for British politics. But their impact for Northern Ireland is also going to be significant. The DUP knew that this was going to be a difficult election for several reasons but the loss of three of the eight seats they held before the election will still be a shock. There is no easy solution which they can take to rebuild their support and the fact that they were defeated in individual constituencies by Alliance, the UUP and the TUV shows that they have been squeezed from across the political spectrum. They barely held on in East Derry where Gregory Campbell kept his seat by 200 votes from a Sinn Féin challenge, after a recount. Sammy Wilson’s majority in East Antrim was slashed to just over a thousand votes. Both of these longstanding DUP MPs are now in their early seventies. Will they even want to stand at the time of the next election? The biggest shock though was the defeat of Ian Paisley in North Antrim by Jim Allister of the TUV. This was a seat which had been represented by a Paisley for 54 years.

Despite the disappointment of the recent European and local elections for Sinn Féin in the South, they held each of their seven seats with increased majorities. They have also made inroads in several other seats which sets them up to challenge robustly in the next Westminster election. Sinn Féin has now achieved the hattrick of being the largest party in the North, in local government, the Assembly and in Westminster. The SDLP held their two seats. There remain more nationalist MPs than Unionist ones.

While Labour have built broad support, it is shallow and we may find that despite their significant majority, politics will remain unstable in Britain. As previously indicated, the Conservatives are likely to lurch further to the right to chase the voters lost to Reform. This will not succeed and it will create more distance between Conservatism and Unionism. Reform will argue for proportional representation but will continue to espouse an essentially English Nationalist approach to politics and all of the implications which flow from that.

Labour has a large majority now but given the volatile nature of British politics, things could be very different by the time of the next Westminster election which must take place by 2029 at the latest. In Britain there could be a further fracturing of rightwing politics or Farage could take over the Conservatives. We know that he has previously expressed his view that a United Ireland is inevitable. Labour doubled its number of seats in the course of one parliamentary mandate. It could easily lose a significant number of these by the time of the next election, given that they have multiple crises to address and very little financial flexibility. In terms of the North, Nationalism holds more seats than Unionism at Westminster. Several DUP MPs have been returned with significantly reduced majorities and these seats could be won by non-Unionists next time.

Sir Keir Starmer apparently developed a deep love of Ireland during his time as a human rights advisor to the Northern Ireland Policing Board.  He has a Chief of Staff Sue Gray who previously worked at a senior level in the NI Civil Service and lived in Newry for several years while working in a pub. His campaign director Morgan McSweeney is from Cork, so between his own experience and the staff around him, he will have a good understanding of Irish issues.

Labour have stated that they intend to have a reset in Britain’s relations with Ireland, as well as with the wider EU. The commitment to repealing and replacing the Legacy Act will be welcome. They intend to negotiate a new fiscal framework with the NI Executive and this is likely to include a requirement for new revenue-raising options. When Peter Hain was a Labour Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he was very bullish about introducing water charging for domestic users. The financial inheritance from the Tories is going to be meagre so there will be difficult decisions and likely tax rises ahead across Britain. Labour has no seats or votes in Northern Ireland, so while there has been significant underinvestment for decades, it is naïve to think that the region will be able to avoid sharing in this pain.

The likelihood of an Irish election this autumn has also increased, as the next Irish budget has been brought forward to the start of October. There is a window of opportunity for Ireland and Britain to agree a longterm approach to the North. Whoever forms the next Irish Government should rapidly engage with the British Government on reunification. They should indicate their desire for governmental preparations on unity, given the changing demographics and electoral realities. Starmer as a lawyer likes certainty and will value preparation. This would be a sensible way to address the Irish question which has distracted British politics and impacted on Westminster governments for more than one hundred years. The disappointing results for the SNP in Scotland means that Starmer will be able to face down any immediate calls for a further Scottish independence referendum.

As Leader of the Opposition, Starmer stated that in the event of a border poll he would campaign for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK. Hilary Benn his Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that the prospect of a border poll was not even on the horizon. The Good Friday Agreement stipulates that it is for the people of Ireland, North and South, to decide on reunification. Starmer’s patriotic socialism was a necessary step to get his party back into government. As they wanted to win from the centre ground by providing a stable alternative to the chaos of the Tory government, these comments are not surprising.

Leo Varadkar, former Taoiseach, recently voiced his desire that the Irish Government would make reunification a political objective rather than an aspiration. He suggested that the Irish Sovereign Wealth Fund being set up by the government should set aside money specifically for Irish unity. The Irish Government can unlock preparations for unity by taking these steps. There should be a request for the border poll criteria to be set out so that Britain and Ireland can prepare. Once the British Government knows that the Irish Government is serious about reunification, momentum will quicken. We need to know when a referendum is likely as this will focus the preparatory work. Reunification of Ireland will only come about after democratic votes in both current states on the island. To ensure a smooth process, this will require close working between Britain and Ireland, after the people of Ireland have voted for unity. But we must not wait for the vote, it is time to prepare now.