On the face of it, the results from last week’s local elections should provide a wake-up call for the Democratic Unionist Party and all those who wish to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. For the first time ever, more people in Northern Ireland voted for nationalist political parties than unionist alternatives, a watershed moment in the history of the province. Sinn Féin secured one of its best ever results, cementing its position as Northern Ireland’s most popular party. A terrible outcome for unionism, then.
Yet the results were very much not a disaster for the DUP, which did not lose a single seat, apparently vindicating its decision to continue blocking a return to Stormont until further concessions are made to the post-Brexit Irish sea border. As one leading unionist figure put it to me, the results have made Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, king of all he surveys in Northern Irish unionism. Donaldson’s problem is that this no longer amounts to as much as it did.
As ever with Northern Ireland, the results are confounding — particularly for that class of respectable commentators who never tire of predicting electoral disaster for the DUP unless it moderates its position and accepts whatever London says is best. In these elections, the first since Rishi Sunak’s “Windsor Framework” was unveiled, it was the moderate Ulster Unionist Party which suffered the most, losing more seats than any other party despite apparently representing the silent majority of unionists who want a return to power sharing at Stormont.
Similarly, on the nationalist side of the ledger it was the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) which suffered most, while the constitutionally neutral Alliance Party only managed marginal gains.
So what does it all mean? Primarily, that unionism is in a very bad place with no obvious way out. The truth is that unionist voters largely backed the DUP and therefore, presumably, its decision to continue holding out against Sunak’s Windsor Agreement even if that means no return to power sharing with Sinn Féin (or, indeed, for some, because that means no power sharing with Sinn Féin).
Yet this stance is not so much a strategy as a temporary holding tactic with ever-diminishing returns. While the DUP’s strategy managed to prop up its own support, it also seems to have rallied nationalist support behind Sinn Féin to such an extent that the unionist party has fallen ever further behind its bitter rival in the polls. This is the essential DUP dilemma.
The optimistic reading of the election results is that Donaldson now has the authority to take the party back into Stormont in the autumn as soon as he is given enough cover to do so — potentially with some kind of flimsy concession from Downing Street. The problem with this reading is that while politics might be cynical, it cannot be too cynical. Given that the DUP’s intransigence has just been partially vindicated, there are plenty of risks associated with suddenly becoming more conciliatory.
It will not be easy for Donaldson to change tack unless there is a meaningful concession over the Irish Sea border — and very few people think such an outcome is diplomatically possible. Remember: we are now a year or so away from the next general election. Unless Donaldson moves quickly, there will be many in the party worried about losing votes to the more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).
But here’s the rub. The total support for the DUP and TUV now stands at around 27%. This is not a sustainable position from which to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. The DUP might currently feel as though it has successfully circled the wagons, but it needs to break out of this position soon. “It can’t be the ‘it’s not fair’ party forever,” a second influential unionist told me. “It might not be fair, but life’s not fair. We are where we are. The question is what are we going to do about it.”
Unionism is stuck, and the decisions it makes over the next few months will define its position for years to come. The Northern Irish problem is not going away.