Michelle O'Neill arrives to cast her vote (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

May 9, 2022   5 mins

By all accounts, last week’s election to the Northern Ireland Assembly was destined to confirm the start of a revolution in the politics of the Province. With a Sinn Féin victory anticipated, the distant prospect of a united Ireland was expected to move closer. But as the dust settles, there has been little discussion of what shape a united Ireland might take. Even more perplexing, there has been little comment on how unionists should respond in the coming years.

For the first time in the history of Northern Ireland, a party representing republicans and nationalists has won the largest number of votes in a Province-wide election. This, in many ways, is a startling result. So too are the advances made by the Alliance Party, gaining from disillusionment within unionist ranks, as the larger parties buckled under the pressure of events. In particular, the poor performance of the DUP in the face of the challenges posed by Brexit negotiations has been damaging to its brand of hard-line unionism.

Northern Ireland was created in 1920, and its borders were confirmed in 1925. The inclusion of six counties within this newly formed jurisdiction was intended to ensure a comfortable unionist majority. A possible nine-county option, which was entertained at the time, would have given unionist voters a bare edge. On the other hand, a mere four counties, which was also considered, would have rendered the unionist homeland scarcely viable. As things came to stand in the six-county unit at the outbreak of the modern phase of the Troubles, the electorate was divided into a 60-40 split between unionist and nationalist voters.

From 1920 to the present day, a higher birth rate among nationalist voters along with a lower volume of emigration has meant that the disproportion between the two sides has been eroded. This election result is a vivid illustration of the implications. And the current trend is set to continue. In the last Northern Ireland census completed a decade ago, the Protestant population made up 48% of the voting public. Catholics, by comparison, stood at 45%. Historically, religion has been a predictor of party affiliation, with Protestants inclined to vote for unionist parties, while Catholics have tended to choose nationalist representation.

The issue, however, is not merely one of party strength. The parties in Northern Ireland are not just divided over policy matters. They are also split in their fundamental allegiances. Sinn Féin and its supporters are committed to joining the Republic, while the unionist parties are determined to maintain the status quo.

But the outcome will not be decided by elections. It will be determined by a referendum, with provision for such a plebiscite built into the legal architecture of the Good Friday Agreement. This states that a mere 51% percent of the population is entitled to determine sovereignty over the territory. Should a vote be triggered, the status of Northern Ireland could be legally redefined. The North could be brought under the jurisdiction of the South.

Since the last census in 2011, the gap between the rival electorates has continued to narrow. Experts predict that by 2030 there may be a majority of nationalist voters. In any case the direction of overall travel seems clear. It is true that there is no certainty about how a nationalist majority might vote. At present there seems little appetite for a border poll. Nonetheless, given the latest electoral result in Northern Ireland, it is clear that the situation is likely to evolve. We might therefore reasonably expect some degree of planning, or at least an informed debate among interested parties.

Before the election, Sinn Féin had been playing down the deeper significance of the impending shift for fear that expectations of fundamental change might reduce their appeal. This caution may soon recede. Just as the party has steadily increased its strength in the North, it has likewise gradually advanced its position in the South. It is currently more popular than any rival party and may before long be able to form a government.

Yet despite its popularity, Sinn Féin has failed to offer a positive vision of the future. Its main focus has long been on defeating its historic adversaries, which it has pursued with due application and ruthlessness. However, as a party of government it needs to develop a wider perspective, inclusive of its opponents as well as supporters. So far, it has offered nothing to the unionist population, still more or less half the inhabitants of the region. This is exactly what nationalists complained about when unionists ran the old Stormont regime.

There is certainly no inevitability about future outcomes. Nonetheless, as the decades pass, a united Ireland looks increasingly plausible. This should cause some serious rethinking on all sides. Instead, the actors are rather haplessly being carried along by events. John Finucane, Sinn Féin’s director of elections, recently declared that “only unity” could hope to unlock the potential of the island. This is a case of being blinded by heady optimism. Meanwhile, in the South, there is no agreement on the possible character of a new republic. Equally, there has been little examination of the likely costs.

Still more obvious problems are evident in the North. Among the DUP in particular, there is a refusal to confront reality. This obstinacy has its roots in unionist tradition stretching back to the years before partition. Historically, unionist allegiance has taken the form of dependence. Their representatives have looked to Britain to secure their position, usually with a mixture of anxiety and bluster. The reason for the anxiety is clear: dependence can only be happy if both sides share the same objective. Yet this has not been the case between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The asymmetry is now more obvious than at any time in the Province’s history. Prior to the election, the DUP campaigned to scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs its economic relations with the European Union. Under its strictures, customs arrangements in the six-county area are distinct from those that operate in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Despite fierce opposition to these unwanted Brexit clauses, disaffected unionists have been unable to bring about change. In fact, as if to humiliate the largest unionist party, the day before the election Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, made plain his government’s reluctance to suspend the Protocol. With a single utterance, a minister of the crown exposed the structural impotence of unionism.

There is a pathological dynamic in operation here. Unionism has banked upon unreciprocated loyalty. But the British establishment has no real commitment to maintaining the Union with Northern Ireland, a fact which undermines the bargaining power of unionism. At the same time, many unionists are blind to the looming crisis around them. Typically, this has encouraged empty swagger instead of dispassionate calculation. It is, then, strongly in unionists’ interest to change their strategy going forward. A start might be made by building new alliances in the North. The recent success of the Alliance Party in expanding its horizons could offer lessons to more hidebound unionist mentalities.

Further progress might be made by collaborating with the South. For instance, unionists could open discussions about the future of cross-border arrangements. In the process, they might canvass new opportunities for rapprochement. They could start by underlining the cost of reunification. The crucial point is that there are substantial pockets of opinion in the South that are determined to counteract the inexorable rise of Sinn Féin. Unionists are sure to find confederates among them. This kind of partnership is surely more promising for the unionist cause than the bitter mistrust that has characterised their dealings with British governments.

Richard Bourke is Professor of the History of Political Thought and Fellow of King’s College at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Empire and Revolution: The Political Thought of Edmund Burke.