The ‘dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again…’

Sir Winston Churchill, February 16, 1922:

“The whole map of Europe has been changed … but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.”

This election campaign was deemed by commentators as boring and lacklustre. The reaction from voters shows the opposite. Despite a move towards a presidential-type, (strong and stable) leadership-focused campaign, this was a ‘ground war’ campaign where parties worked on the doorsteps to get the vote out and they did, in many different local campaigns.

In Northern Ireland the DUP and Sinn Féin have consolidated their positions while wiping out both the UUP who lost their two seats and the SDLP who lost all three. Their contribution in the House of Commons, their participation in Committees and defence of Northern Ireland interests in both the Brexit and Welfare Reform debates was not enough to protect Mark Durkan, Margaret Ritchie and Alasdair McDonnell, all three former SDLP leaders, from the rising tide of Sinn Féin. The UUP’s Tom Elliott was victim to this surge as Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew took back the ‘dreary steeples of Fermanagh and South Tyrone’. This reflects the fact that on this side of the Irish sea this election was the March 2017 Assembly Snap Election mark two.

The DUP who took South Belfast from Alasdair McDonnell and took Danny Kinahan’s South Antrim seat comfortably had an excellent election. There had been an expectation in 2015 that DUP would hold the king-making role in expectation of a hung parliament  – it did not materialise then, but now it has come to pass. They have agreed to help the Conservatives reach over the magic 326 majority figure – probably on a supply and demand type approach currently enjoyed by the Government in the Republic of Ireland, with Fianna Fail supporting a Fine Gael and Independent minority.

The DUP is now in a very strong position to extract concessions in return for their votes – what will these look like, and in the context of Brexit? Already ‘no special status for NI’ has apparently been agreed with Theresa May. But also expect demands and deals on infrastructure funds, successors to EU funds, including direct payment support for farmers, corporation tax and various flagship projects. Beyond Brexit how will victims issues be dealt with, what of prosecution of former British army soldiers for Troubles-related actions? We can anticipate side deals and under the radar commitments, too, on the Legacy of the Past, as we term the outworkings of our most recent 40-year conflict. So what are the takeaways from last night in Northern Ireland?

– Overall turnout 65.6%, up by seven points;

– In NI, the story being the wipe-out of both SDLP and UUP, including the loss of Mark Durkan in Foyle, Margaret Ritchie in South Down and Alasdair McDonnell in Belfast South;

– Gains made by both DUP and SF, with 10 seats (up two) and seven (+3) respectively, while Lady Sylvia Hermon managed to hold on to the remaining Independent North Down seat despite DUP inroads;

– Major DUP vote surge in this election – up 10.3% on last general election; UUP share down 5.8%, prompted perhaps in response to the SF rise in the recent March Assembly elections;

– Sinn Féin share of the vote up 4.9%, while SDLP down 2.2%;

– With the certainty of SF continuing its abstentionism at Westminster, there will be no nationalist MPs representing Northern Ireland on the green benches;

– DUP currently most googled political party, whose website has now crashed – view it here:

So, as Theresa May goes to the Palace with the support of the DUP, the politics of this island are back at the heart of British politics to a degree we have not seen in a very long time; Winston Churchill was prescient a century ago!

This is a guest post from Quintin Oliver, Director of Stratagem NI