Sovereignty 2045 – Chapter 4: Election Night!

I was out and about at various voting centres in Belfast on election day being careful to divide my time between protestant, Catholic, middle class and working-class areas. Most people were happy enough to chat though some gave me the middle finger. Reactions were sharply divided with many unionists saying they were protesting against “Sunak selling out our country when it isn’t even his to sell!”

This chapter follows on from:

Chapter 1: My private meeting with Rishi Sunak

Chapter 2: The Bombshell

Chapter 3: Belfast

Nationalists were saying it was a dress rehearsal for the border poll and they had to show what the “majority in this country really wanted.” Few expressed much interest in the election on the mainland although some mentioned that they had to get the Tories out.

I asked them about how they felt about not really having much say in who formed the next government in Britain. Reactions varied, but many were along the theme of “sure it doesn’t matter, they’re all the same anyway!” Nobody mentioned that the DUP had once had considerable influence over a British government and had caused the downfall of Teresa May. Some were more interested in what was happening in Scotland and expressed surprise that the SNP seemed to be doing so well despite all the scandals, if reports were to be believed.

So far, I hadn’t met a single journalist from a British daily and so I had no one to compare notes with. I didn’t know whether I was getting a representative sample of opinion but had to file a report anyway. My editor Matt Casey had been on to me several times looking for updates. At that stage I had been submitting mainly analytical pieces on the elections as a whole and was only beginning to get a handle on how things looked from a Northern Ireland perspective. To my surprise he had published most of them even though I was hardly a senior analyst on his staff. He seemed to like my stuff, all of a sudden.

To my shock, that evening I was also invited onto the BBC Northern Ireland election programme panel to give my views of the election as a whole from a British perspective. I didn’t even know what to wear. Suit? Shirt and Tie? Too formal? It was to be a late night programme. The producer who invited me suggested an open necked shirt was fine. It was to be an informal chat rather than a formal news programme. I think she was trying to put me at ease.

It was my first time on TV, and I was extremely nervous, and I probably talked too much. My editor’s warning never to let myself become the story was ringing in my ears. I had better not be too controversial but there was no point in waffling – I wouldn’t be asked again if I did. But news from the polling centres was slow to come in and they were happy to have someone to fill in the airtime. I was introduced as the reporter who had broken the Border Poll story and asked to give a considered view of how the election had unfolded in Britain.

So, for what it’s worth, my analysis, delivered in a stream of consciousness and with only a few prompts on a sheet of paper in front of me, was on the following lines, edited for brevity. It wasn’t all delivered in one go, of course, but the presenter held off interruptions from fellow panel members Sammy Wison and Michelle Gildernew, and kept prompting me to go on: I felt I might be digging a hole for myself, but whatever: In for a penny, in for a pound:

“Almost as soon as the election was formally called, Labour’s commanding 20 point lead in the opinion polls began a rapid decline. Analysts dispute the precise importance of the various causes, but most are agreed the Tories focus on eliminating wasteful spending hit a nerve. Families were being put to the pin of their collar to make ends meet and saw no reason why government should lavish huge sums on projects and services not of direct benefit to them.

Northern Ireland was barely mentioned in the campaign in England, but few doubted where the Tories thought most of the potential savings would lie. It didn’t trouble them unduly because many could never quite understand the place in the first place. For all the unionist protestations of “Britishness,” they didn’t feel British from an English perspective.

There was also a natural suspicion of “those who protest too much.” True brits are expected to take adversity on chin and exhibit a stiff upper lip at the same time. There was already quite enough concern that standards in public life were slipping throughout the UK, and Northern Ireland politicians didn’t seem to raise the standard appreciably.

Labour’s cause was not helped by Keir Starmer appearing to be more conservative than the conservatives themselves. Having endorsed the Tory decision to cap children’s benefit at two children, Labour were then completely wrong footed when the Conservatives announced they were confident they could find the money to lift the cap to three children if not more, and that the increasing evidence of rising child poverty demanded such a policy change.

Labour rather sheepishly followed suit soon after, but not before looking completely asinine and spineless for having endorsed a policy totally at variance with their historic commitment to the welfare state.

Further Tory announcements of health service enhancements soon followed, to be followed rather rapidly by “me-to” statements by the relevant Labour spokespersons.

To the casual observer, generally disengaged from the political process, it almost looked like the Tories were leading the charge to improve public services with Labour always one step behind.

In vain Labour spokespersons pointed out that the Tories had actually been in power for the past 14 years and were primarily responsible for the cutbacks in the first place. The disengaged voter heard only the usual arguments about the past. What they were really interested in was what was going to be done to fix all these problems in the future. And many of them felt Sunak was presenting a more positive and dynamic message.

Every time the conversation veered to Brexit, the Pandemic or other past external factors Sunak would simply declare he wasn’t interested in blame games about the past, he was razor focused on building a better future, and argued that it was the Tories who had the better ideas and policies, and the energy to implement them.

Whenever the topic of Northern Ireland came up, Sunak was quite dismissive: It was up to the people of Northern Ireland to take responsibility for their own future and not always be looking to others to solve their problems. They had, he declared, the same opportunities as anyone else in the UK, with the added benefit of being next to a quite dynamic economy in Ireland. There could be quite a lot of synergies on the island if that was the way they wanted to go, but he would not dictate a choice to anyone. (He didn’t mention that Northern Ireland also had the advantage of full access to the single market).

Independent observers took this to be a coded message that Northern Ireland should hitch its wagon to Ireland, although nobody quite said that and no great controversy at those remarks ever erupted in England. Even the European Research Group (ERG) Tory allies of the DUP were very focused on winning their own seats and anxious to promote an image of Tory unity throughout the campaign. In their view, Donaldson had rather burned his boats by cosying up to Starmer, even if they could understand why.

Come back to us after the election was their response to DUP entreaties to hound the government to robustly reaffirm its commitment to Northern Ireland with increased spending plans. A review of cutbacks in Northern Ireland has been promised, but as we all know, these reports often end up gathering dust on shelves, and are generally promised to frustrate and deflect criticisms of decisions already made…

Of course, the DUP are absolutely apoplectic about all this, but as this is so often their standard operating procedure, the general English public barely noticed. Unionist rallies in Northern Ireland have been well attended but have received scant attention in British and global media. A genuine effort has been made to ensure there was always a strong unionist unity candidate in every constituency, with huge anger directed at the Alliance Party for refusing to play along. However, in practice, where a realistic choice was available, it was always the harder line unionist who ended up getting the unionist unity nomination.

This only drove more moderate unionists into the arms of the Alliance Party. In a couple of constituencies, Alliance and the SDLP had even discussed having a joint “constructive engagement” candidate pledged to respect and implement whatever was the outcome of the border poll. This only increased unionist accusations that Alliance were part of a “pan nationalist front.” In vain Alliance proposed to “balance their books” by suggesting they and the UUP might agree a joint candidate in a couple of constituencies, particularly Fermanagh South Tyrone, but the UUP refused to play ball, insisting on backing a unionist unity candidate instead.

This refusal to “reach across the aisle” to broaden the base of support for the constitutional status quo surprised outside observers. In most political systems the party which successfully manages to straddle most of the centre ground tends to lead the poll and form or lead the next government. However, the single seat first past the post electoral system tends to encourage polarisation into two large opposing parties and some smaller regional or special issue parties on the margins with little or no hope of forming part of the government.

Strangely, in Northern Ireland, this appears to happen even in multi-seat single transferable vote local and assembly elections, which usually deliver a much closer alignment of seats won with votes cast. It seems that in very polarised societies, the focus is always on maximising turnout of your own voters rather than reaching across the aisle, because any such “reaching out to” or “accommodating” voters beyond your own party base tends to be seen as “fraternising with the enemy” and puts your own core vote at risk.

This is all fine and dandy if your natural constituency exceeds 50% of the vote. But in a polarised society where neither of the two poles can command 50% of the vote, the battle for the centre ground proves crucial in determining the outcome. This is the ground that Alliance has successfully occupied and expanded in the years leading up to this election, and the attitude of this demographic will prove crucial in determining the outcome of the border poll.

However, that same phenomenon may also have badly damaged the Labour party’s chances of achieving power in Westminster. Firstly, Sunak’s calling of the Border Poll (for I believe it was he who called it, not his rather hapless Secretary of State) handed the initiative back to the SNP in Scotland, aggrieved at being denied a border poll when many in Northern Ireland did not even want one. Labour’s revival in Scotland amongst moderately nationalist and non-nationalist voters was killed off by that act.

Secondly, in “reaching across the aisle” so strenuously as to nullify any potential Tory attacks against him, Keir Starmer demoralised his own base. Union members couldn’t see the point of voting Labour when Starmer sacked shadow cabinet ministers for supporting strikers seeking to protect their living standards by seeking only wage increases in line with the cost of living. Vote Labour, get Tories became the catch phrase on the left, inspiring many leftwing labour candidates to stand as independents and split the potential Labour vote.

Thirdly, while Starmer’s stand beside Jeffrey Donaldson in support of a British UK was rarely mentioned again in England, it did have the effect of splitting the Labour party. Many activists refused to canvass for the official Labour candidates and supported Corbyn’s decision to stand as an independent Labour candidate (having been expelled from the party) and supported other left wing candidates in Labour strongholds. This had badly damaged the Labour vote. Tory newspapers were able to portray Labour as once again riven by disputes and rivalries and dominated, in their view, by left wing radicals, who got most of their publicity despite not being part of the official Starmer led Labour Party.

So, what was Starmer thinking? Being seen to support a British UK may have made for a good photo op, but few if any voters in England were going to change their vote based on his stance on Northern Ireland. Being seen to cosy up to Jeffrey Donaldson may also have contributed to a perception that Starmer lacked confidence that Labour would win an overall majority and was already setting up potential coalition options. He was also noticeably conciliatory towards the SNP on his trips to Scotland, without ever meeting their central demand of a second independence referendum. This led to Tory charges of “Vote Labour, get an unstable coalition of Labour, SNP, Lib Dems, and Unionists.”

It was not a vote winner.”

OH SHIT! It hit the fan. Coming from an English background, with a relatively posh English accent, I had been anxious not to appear a Tory or a Unionist stooge. I couldn’t take sides in the political divide in Northern Ireland, so I couldn’t be too positive about Donaldson’s considerable coup in getting Starmer on his side. Starmer seemed to have lost the plot to some degree anyway, and it was showing in the opinion polls. I was only repeating what I had read or heard people say many times anyway, but somehow these were not the things a visiting Englishman on the panel was supposed to say.

I was immediately accused of being a Sunak Stooge by Sammy Wilson, the DUP representative on the panel, who was in the process of being re-elected. “You don’t have a clue about what you are talking about! There is huge concern in England at the way in which Sunak was SELLING OUT THE UNION, and he was going to be unceremoniously turfed out by all true BRITISH PEOPLE!”

“True,” was my somewhat cowed response, but it doesn’t look like Keir Starmer is going to reap any benefits from his alliance with the DUP” was all I could get in before an enormous row broke out in the panel. Michelle Gildernew, Sinn Féin MP who was in a tight contest in Fermanagh South Tyrone seemed to be terribly pleased with my exposition. In vain, the Chair tries to calm things down by stating that the election was over, all the votes had been cast, and the participants weren’t going to be winning any more on the night!

It was to be a long night.

Although the programme was broadcast only in Northern Ireland, news of the controversy filtered back to England. Julia was in the room when one of the senior political correspondents showed it on his TV monitor. “He’s at it again!” Seemed to be the highly amused collective response. “Trust Matt Casey to send a bull into a China shop!”

I was dreading my next call with him. Would this be the last of my several short assignments with the paper?

Instead, he was quite charming. Apparently, I had raised the profile of The Tribune in Northern Ireland no end. It wasn’t even available in shops in some nationalist areas and now it might be. Apparently hits on our website from Northern Ireland had greatly increased. I may have said a few things that people didn’t want to hear, but there was no point in not being clear in our communications as to how we see each other. We had to tell it as it is. “Just make sure to cover lots of unionist reactions to the election results” was all the advice he gave me.

Prior to the counts starting to report, TV Election analysts had been noting that turnout seemed to be exceptionally high. They noted that there had been a secular decline in turnout in UK elections, from a high point of 84% in 1950, to 67% in the previous 2019 election. Many people had simply switched off from politics and politicians altogether, no longer believing they are there to address their needs. Even in the historic Brexit referendum, where for once every voted counted and there were no “safe” constituencies where voting was almost pointless because the result was a forgone conclusion, the turnout only reached 72%. Many people had simply switched off from politics altogether.

So, what were the reasons that were driving people to the polls on this occasion? Exit polls and Vox Pops were saying it was time to get the Tories out. Some were saying that Labour were just as bad as the Tories so they didn’t know who to vote for. Many felt they had to get out and vote in protest at what they thought was “the terrible state the country is in, where nothing works anymore.” Some said they were voting Liberal because of their support for the European Union membership, but many just seemed to want to cast for anyone but the Tories.

Turnout in Northern Ireland Westminster, European and assembly elections had averaged only 61% in the 55 years prior to the 2024 General election, although the downward trend was not as dramatic as in Britain. That still means that 39% of the electorate are not engaged despite (or perhaps because of) the extreme polarisation and politicisation of everything in Northern Ireland. Had many of them voted, and would they vote in the border poll? And if so, how would they vote?

I have to admit that while I felt the election in Britain would be a close call between Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, with Labour still in the driving seat, I had no idea how the elections in Northern Ireland would pan out. I simply hadn’t spoken to enough people. I had a vague hunch that Alliance would do well, but maybe I had been speaking to too many middle class people. So, the results, as they came out weren’t much of a surprise to me, even if many people were truly shocked.

The early results were soon coming in and the BBC predicted the following outcome, based on the exit polls, which turned out to be extraordinarily accurate:

Seat prediction based on electoral model including estimates of tactical voting.

The extraordinary unfairness of the UK First Past the Post Single Seat Constituency electoral system is illustrated by the results table above. For the first time ever all three national parties all came in under 30%, but Labour, on 29% got more seats than the Lib Dems on 28% and the Tories on 27% combined. They were still 36 seats short of a majority, however, and couldn’t form a majority government without the support of either one of the other major parties or the SNP. The Greens got no extra seats, despite almost doubling their vote and the SNP improved marginally by one seat. Despite almost quadrupling their vote, independents and others got only one seat. Jeremy Corbyn would remain in the Commons to be a thorn in Keir Starmer’s side.

Prominent Tories like the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak; prominent Brexiteers Stephen Hammond and Damian Green; Northern Ireland man Conor Burns; former leaders Ian Duncan Smith and Theresa May; former Northern Secretaries Theresa Villiers and Julian Smith; former cabinet ministers John Redwood, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Liam Fox, Kwasi Kwarteng, and Chris Grayling; cabinet ministers Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Grant Shapps; and Northern Ireland Office Minister Steve Baker were all projected to have lost their seats.

It may not have been a slaughter of the innocents, but it was some slaughter, nevertheless. The British people had had their revenge on those who had misled them on Brexit.

But, given how close the big three parties were in terms of votes, how this can pass for democracy is beyond me!

Naturally, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, announced his immediate resignation as Conservative leader, although he had to stay on as caretaker Prime Minister until a successor was elected.

Back in the studio, Sammy Wilson was in fine form and couldn’t hide his satisfaction. “This is what happens to Prime Ministers who betray our precious union!” he announced, looking extremely pleased.

Northern Ireland Prediction: Alliance gain 1 seat from DUP

A screenshot of a computer screen

Description automatically generated Seat prediction based on electoral model including estimates of tactical voting.

In stark contrast, there was very little by way of change in Northern Ireland in terms of the seat count, with only Gavin Robinson (DUP) losing his seat to Alliance Party Leader Naomi Long. This was despite Sinn Féin increasing their vote hugely from 23 to 30% and becoming the largest party in terms of the vote in Westminster elections as well. The DUP lost almost 7% of the vote mainly because they were held responsible for the outcome of Brexit, the collapse of devolution, and the calling of the border poll. The SDLP held on to their two seats by the skin of their teeth.

Nationalists were cock-a-hoop to have extended their lead over Unionists to 42 percent to 34 percent, or a margin of 8 percent. Unionists were dismayed. It seemed the DUP’s collapse of the institutions was being blamed, in part, for many of the expenditure cuts the Secretary of State had been imposing without effective opposition by an Assembly and Executive. There would now be huge pressure on the DUP to end their boycott.

Jeffrey Donaldson said it all depended on Keir Starmer delivering on his promises. No one was too clear on what Starmer had promised, beyond calling on people to “Support the Union” in the forthcoming border poll. But Donaldson could be happy that he had backed the winning horse for once. Even if only just by a short head.

With no party having a clear Majority in Westminster, the formation of a new government was going to be very difficult. The King asked Sir Keir Starmer, as leader of the largest party, to take on that task.

To be continued/ Chapter 5: A Draft new British Irish Treaty


Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.