The DUP and Sinn Féin need to be saved from themselves if we are to secure the return of the Assembly and they are to secure either Union or Unity

Politics in Northern Ireland will only work when voters are more important than parties.


The past seven years have demonstrated that, to mis-quote King Lear, “as flies to wanton parties are we to the Gods, they ungovern us for their sport’. The two major parties should not, at will, be able to topple the architecture of administration to further their monochrome and mutually-exclusive aims.

Neither unionist nor nationalist is the majority identity in NI. If the DUP wish the majority of Northern Ireland voters to back the Union, they must – as the largest unionist party – demonstrate to beyond their identity base that NI can govern itself in a stable and pluralist way. If SF wish the majority of Northern Ireland voters to back unity, they must – as the largest nationalist party – demonstrate to both beyond their identity base and to southern voters that NI can govern itself in a stable and pluralist way.

Both parties are at the mercy of their more refractory victory-at-all-costs wings: “we will never return to Stormont”; “we will never take our seats at Westminster”; “we will never accept a Sinn Féin First Minister”; “we will always say the IRA armed struggle was necessary and successful”. It is sadly ironic that both democratically-elected parties are boycotting democratically-elected parliaments.

By not re-entering Stormont, the DUP puts the Union in jeopardy because it destroys devolution and hands power to Dublin via Direct Rule AIA-style. And unionism is now behind nationalism in MPs and local election votes. Boycotting Stormont gives plausibility to the narrative that the DUP won’t accept a nationalist First Minister.

By not acknowledging that armed struggle was unsuccessful (never mind ‘unjustified and unjustifiable’ as David Cameron said of Bloody Sunday), Sinn Féin will not convince the Others of the merits of unity as it will be seen as unity-via-Bloody Friday. (Despite Brexit, Boris Johnson and nationalist bloc plurality, pro-unity seems stuck at 30%.) Boycotting Westminster means Sinn Féin are missing the opportunity of influencing British politicians in setting the criteria for the Secretary of State calling a border poll.

Is the DUP more interested in victory over nationalism than securing the Union? Is Sinn Féin more interested in victory over unionism than securing unity? Oscar Wilde was surely right when, in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, he wrote: “each man kills the things he loves…some do it with a bitter look…the brave man with a sword”.

Both parties are impaled on a hook of their own making: the hook of echo-chamber ideological purity that offers no solutions to the real problems their own voters face as they try to educate their children, feed their families, and care for their elderly – often ill – relatives.


There are imminent short-term dangers for the DUP if it refuses to resuscitate Stormont:

Scenario 1: There could be a ‘Bring-back-Stormont’ electoral pact in key Westminster constituencies. The DUP gained less than 50% of the valid vote in all eight of its victories. If three of the other four major parties (SF, AP, UUP, SDLP) stood aside (or found an agreed non-party candidate) in favour of the 2019 runner-up all DUP seats are vulnerable. This would involve Alliance-only standing in East Belfast, East Antrim, Lagan Valley and Strangford; SDLP-only in East Londonderry; UUP-only in North Antrim and South Antrim; SF-only in Upper Bann.

It seems impossible to imagine the UUP standing down in Upper Bann in favour of Westminster-abstentionist-IRA-justifying SF, but the above scenario could see significant gains for all four parties at the expense of the DUP and would align Westminster MPs with the pro-Assembly sentiment of the majority of NI voters.

Perhaps, if SF agreed to take its seats in Westminster and all four parties pledged to campaign for single-seat-PR in UK elections (the Alternative Vote), such a Bring-back-Stormont coalition is possible. This would be asking some voters to hold their noses voting for their enemies just this once because there would never again be candidate intimidation or a need for party withdrawal, pacts and tactical voting. Even if the DUP lost just 2 seats, they would likely have fewer MPs than Sinn Féin, and that would be a significant political defeat for them.

Scenario 2: What if Sinn Féin become the biggest party in the next Irish government, Taoiseach Mary Lou McDonald resigns as TD, Michelle O’Neill wins the Dublin Central by-election and becomes Taoiseach, and Mary Lou becomes the replacement MLA for Mid-Ulster? In effect the GFA Strand 3 BIIGC would be worked by Sinn Féin and (likely) Labour, many of whose MPs will probably be closer emotionally to Irish unity than to NI remaining within the Union.

If scenario 1 were to play out, there could be 5-6 Alliance, 1-3 SDLP, 8-10 SF, 2 UUP, and no DUP MPs in Westminster. Unionism would have even less influence than they currently have in the parliament that voted overwhelmingly for the Windsor Framework. If scenarios 1 and 2 play out, there would be no benefit for nationalism in a devolved parliament. The DUPs only political representatives would be councillors and Lords Browne, Dodds, Hay, McCrea, Morrow and Weir. And the latter six are vulnerable to Labour reform of the House of Lords.


There is an imminent short-term danger for nationalism: if the SDLP lose both Foyle and South Belfast & Mid Down, nationalism will have no voice in Westminster. When one looks at the achievements, for the vast majority of Irish people, of Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stuart Parnell, John Redmond, Gerry Fitt, John Hume and Seamus Mallon it would be a major own-goal if demographically-rising nationalism had no voice in the only parliament where a border poll on unity will be decided upon.


Is there a ‘one-bound-they-were-free’ possibility to positively transform NI politics in the medium term and save both parties from themselves? Two possibilities, actually:

  1. Changing the means of electing the First and Deputy First Ministers, and Speaker: after the 90 MLAs were elected (same voting system), each party would nominate one candidate. Two weeks after the Assembly election, the NI electorate would vote for FM and DFM in one NI-wide 2-seat constituency. The first to reach the quota of 33.3%+1 would be FM, second would be DFM. This gives voters, not parties, the power. All parties would have to court voters beyond their base to gain transfers: some of the poison politics would have been dissipated. (It would be unfair on nationalists if Michelle O’Neill were not able to assume the role of FM when Stormont returns, given the current system was in place at the last election.)

    The last action of a sitting Assembly should be to elect the Speaker for the succeeding Assembly. This would mean one constituency electing four MLAs in the succeeding election. This process works extremely well for the election of Ceann Comhairle in the Dáil.

  2. Introducing the Alternative Vote (AV: single-seat PR) for Westminster elections: discussed earlier. Only South Belfast, West Belfast and Foyle elected MPs whose vote share exceeded 50%. All MPs would have to exceed 50%+1 to be elected. The 18 returned MPs, therefore, would be more representative of the NI electorate. Unionists would argue that changing the electoral system would make NI less British. The answer to that is that the electoral system is not mentioned in the Act of Union; the number of constituencies in the four parts of the UK (and Orkney, Shetlands, Outer Hebrides, Anglesea, and Isle of Wight) is based on a different average population per part; and the devolved and local electoral systems in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland differ from England and from each other. The Union is flexible enough to tolerate such psephological heterogeneity. And unionists could also argue for AV to be used in all Westminster constituencies, thus eliminating the ‘less British’ concern.


The above two changes would return MPs and FM&DFM that more closely reflect the wishes of NI voters. Such changes would force the two biggest parties to change to become more attractive to the other 46% of voters (who currently elect 17% of MPs and 0% of FM&DFM). Such change would only improve their electoral fortunes. And it would ensure the return of a stable Stormont.

One could argue that the above two changes are meaningless given the context of political stalemate and the disintegration of public services in Northern Ireland. However, for the two major parties such changes (and a Bring-back-Stormont candidate strategy) would concentrate the mind wonderfully: the DUP would re-enter Stormont; there would never again be intimidation of candidates in Westminster contests; MPs would be more reflective of the will of the people; FM&DFM would be elected by the people. The Assembly would have been placed on a stable democratic foundation immune from collapse by party boycott. Echo-chamber ideological purity cannot prevail against the voices of all of the people.

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