POST-election, most commentators and politicians appear to agree that there are now three major parties in the North: Sinn Féin, the DUP and the Alliance Party. DUP people project a more self-serving picture, pointing out that the DUP did not have an electoral meltdown and that DUP + UUP+ TUV negates Sinn Féin’s numbers. In other words, unionists were the real winners in the election.
Excuse me, Virginia, I’m just going out to empty a bucket of iced water over my head. Ah... That’s better.
There are other ways of looking at the polling. In the 2017 election, nationalist votes came to around 334,000; in the election just completed, nationalist votes total came to 351,000. That’s an increase of almost 17,000. In the 2017 election, unionism got 359,000 votes; in 2022, unionism got 349,000: that’s a fall total of some 10,000. As Bob Dylan sang a long time ago, it don’t take a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
I remember – maybe you do too – when commentators said it’d be really significant if some day a Sinn Féin Minister in the North were to meet with his/her Southern counterpart, and that counterpart was also Sinn Féin. What last weekend presented us with is bigger – much bigger. Now what’s to be anticipated is the day a Sinn Féin First Minister in the north meets with a SF Taoiseach in the south.
“But what about this border poll thing?” you ask, Virginia. Well, while not wishing to startle any horses, the weekend marked a giant step towards a border poll. During the election campaign Sinn Féin didn’t go around shouting about wanting a vote on a united Ireland.
Everybody knows they want one. As do hundreds of thousands of people, North and South, who have nothing to do with the Shinners. Besides, SF didn’t have to remind people of their all-Ireland credentials – the DUP did that for them, again and again and again.
Mary Lou McDonald has made reference to a five-year period in terms of a border poll. It’s not completely clear if the five years refer to the discussion and planning that is crucial before a border poll date can be agreed, or whether she’s saying the border poll should be held five years from now.
Certainly extensive discussion and planning is crucial in advance of any border poll. That discussion and planning should begin as early as possible and in a structured way.
The date for a verdict on that planned new Ireland can then be looked at.
Crucial in any such referendum will be the Alliance Party. Nobody knows what the Alliance Party’s position is on a border poll – Naomi Long says they’ll decide when the time comes. But this might help her.
Alliance Party voters gave their first preference vote to Alliance, but where did their second preferences go? By a ratio of 2:1, I’m informed by a reliable source, they went to nationalist parties. Which does suggest, come a border poll, two-thirds of the middle ground might well break for nationalism and a new Ireland.
And in the meantime what’s to be done?
The British and Irish governments – and Irish politicians – need to set up structures where discussion and planning can take place. The idea that this would somehow be a threat is as misleading as to imply that unionism really won the recent election. We need forums and structures where talking and planning can take place.
And that need is pressing – we’ve reached a point of no return. This was caught pithily in a weekend tweet by Stephen Grimason, once a BBC man: “In 2017 it was a big story that SF got within 1,200 first preference votes of the DUP. Today (last weekend) SF have 250,338 FPVs to the DUP’s 184,002. That’s 66,382 votes ahead. The very definition of seismic and there’s no way back from that.”