Brexit has played a conspicuous role in the election in Northern Ireland, but, as in the rest of the UK, it has also been forced to compete for attention with other headline-grabbing political issues.
The current crisis in the NHS in Northern Ireland – powerfully symbolised by a nurses’ strike over pay and conditions – has taken centre stage and has contributed to mounting calls for a swift return to devolution. In the wake of the precipitous collapse of their relationship with the Conservatives in the last Parliament, this has perhaps suited the DUP, which has appeared particularly keen to shift the conversation away from Brexit. Released ahead of their general election manifesto, the party’s election broadcast conspicuously made no mention of the B-word, focussing instead on the (alleged) impact of the billion-pound investment in Northern Ireland delivered under the confidence and supply arrangement.
The DUP was the first of Northern Ireland’s parties to launch its manifesto. Its centre-piece is a 12 point plan for the restoration of devolution, which the party says will ‘get Northern Ireland moving again’. Alleging that DUP MPs are likely once again to find themselves in a king-making position (arguably unlikely, given current polling trends on the ‘mainland’, the likelihood of a diminished number of DUP MPs being returned to Westminster, and Conservatives’ memories about their awkwardness as partners in government), the party stresses that it will demand changes to Johnson’s Brexit deal in order to remove the need for customs checks across the Irish Sea and reinstate a Unionist veto over Northern Ireland’s future alignment with the EU. Unlike the UUP – whose manifesto argues that the constitutional upheaval engendered by Brexit may mean that remaining in the EU is now the best outcome – the DUP are not explicitly of the view that Brexit has been destabilising for the Union as such, nor do they concede that supporting it may have been politically misconceived from the outset.
The DUP manifesto does, however, suggest that the Union as is may not be entirely fit for purpose, and is in need of some remodelling. Under the heading ‘New Generation Unionism’, the party puts forward a vision for deepening Northern Ireland’s integration into British legal, governmental, economic and cultural frameworks. Proposals include closer alignment between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in areas of electoral law, yearly UK cabinet meetings in Belfast, reform of the House of Lords, relocation of some administrative functions of UK government departments to Northern Ireland, and an overhaul of inter-governmental frameworks like the JMC. The DUP also calls for a National Convention on the Union, and in its 12 point plan, reiterates its call for a celebration of Northern Ireland’s centenary in 2021, with a view to ‘building for the next generation and century’. The infamous Scotland to Northern Ireland bridge also gets a showing in the DUP manifesto.
Although it argues that there is ‘no good Brexit’, Sinn Féin’s manifesto gives tacit endorsement to the deal concluded between Boris Johnson and the EU’s Brexit Taskforce in October. Crucially, it indicates that the deal’s provisions on Ireland/Northern Ireland represent something of a coup for Sinn Féin, being tantamount to Special Status for the North of Ireland, as demanded by the party early in the Brexit negotiations. Sinn Féin is keen to stress that it has been using its influence ‘where it matters’, focussing its efforts on Dublin, Brussels and Washington, while abstaining from Brexit votes in London. This is not merely, the party contends, an issue of principle, but also of strategy. Indeed, as the BBC’s John Campbell, quoted on page 15 of the manifesto, has attested, “Sinn Féin’s voice has been heard loud and clear in the European Parliament Brexit steering group, when it comes to issues of Northern Ireland and the border”.
At 16 pages, the document is relatively light on policy specifics, beyond some key demands, including on Irish language and reform of the Assembly, which the party argues must be met in order for power-sharing to be restored. Sinn Féin’s manifesto contains nothing explicit, for example, on climate change and the environment, unlike those of the other main Northern Ireland parties (albeit that in the case of the UUP and the SDLP, a range of measures on the environment sit fairly awkwardly against proposals to lower air passenger duty).
Unsurprisingly, considerable space is given by Sinn Féin in its manifesto – which is titled ‘Time for Unity’ – to making the argument that, in the wake of Brexit, both the case and levels of support for a border poll are building. In so doing, the party draws on recent polling data which shows majority support for Irish reunification on both sides of the border, and calls on the Irish government to take a leading role in the conversation about Irish unity.
Expressing an aspiration for unity, though explicitly not advocating for a border poll at present, the SDLP takes particular issue with Sinn Féin’s policy of abstentionism in its manifesto. It argues instead for building a progressive anti-Brexit coalition in Parliament to secure a people’s vote and to halt Brexit. This strategy carries a high likelihood of failure, relying on a hung parliament or a Labour victory to be effective, and has at any rate been a fairly difficult position for the party to sustain, given its involvement in pro-Remain pacts with Sinn Féin in South and North Belfast. The SDLP manifesto also stresses the dual need for the re-establishment and overhaul of Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions. It calls for the full implementation of as yet undelivered aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, including a Bill of Rights, and for the convening of a citizen’s assembly and a youth parliament to re-engage people with Stormont.
Finally, the Alliance Party manifesto also takes a firm anti-Brexit stance. Having supported Theresa May’s deal and its ‘backstop’, Alliance has taken a more muted position on the deal agreed with the EU by Boris Johnson, and advocates a People’s Vote with Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement versus Remain on the ballot paper. Like the SDLP, Alliance proposes a range of measures to restore and reform the Northern Ireland Assembly, including talks convened by an independent moderator, more sustained and meaningful engagement from the British and Irish governments, legislation for contentious issues at Westminster and the convening of a civic forum. The party also places an onus on promoting a shared future through the expansion of integrated education and shared neighbourhoods.
Thus, four of Northern Ireland’s five main political parties go to the polls with more-or-less militantly anti-Brexit positions, and there is a high probability that the voice of the pro-Brexit DUP will not be the only one with a Northern Irish twang seeking to make itself heard in the next Parliament. It remains to be seen whether the DUP will be punished by Unionist voters for its complicity in Johnson’s ‘Betrayal Act’, or (more likely) whether these voters will rally to the DUP’s claims that they are the Union’s staunchest defenders. How, specifically, the issue of Brexit will interact with the question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional future in voters’ minds when they mark their crosses on their ballot papers on 12 December is difficult to predict accurately. Voters will also have to contend with how Northern Ireland’s results might sit within wider British electoral geographies and grapple with how changes in the balance of power between parties might impact on efforts to restore devolution – likely to be stepped up in the days and weeks following the election. This all makes this one of the more interesting elections in Northern Ireland in recent times.