Change in popular votes but not seats in Northern Ireland?

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May 1, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith

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Northern Ireland have had their political earthquake already. The FPTP election system used in this General Election means there is less likely to be one here on June 8th.

In March there was an ’emergency’ National Assembly election, called because Sinn Fein had withdrawn from the Government in protest at DUP leader Arlene Foster’s refusal to step down whilst being investigated for an energy ‘scandal’. The result was important, because not only did Sinn Fein get to within one seat of the DUP, Nationalist parties as a whole had a majority for the first time since the Assembly was set up. After a month, a Government had not been created, and now it won’t be until after the June 8th election.

The reason for this is because, many feel, the issues that matter in Northern Ireland are slowly beginning to change. Instead of there JUST being a Protestant/Catholic split, instead of it just being about Unionists and Nationalists, the people of Northern Ireland are beginning to wake up to a new reality. Having been totally ignored during the EU Referendum campaign, and seeing a General Election called whilst they don’t even have a Government, the people of Northern Ireland are realising that the rest of the UK doesn’t really think of them much. The rest of Ireland does. So does the European Union. So joining the rest of Ireland and thus the EU might look more like it is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland as a whole than staying in an isolated UK which doesn’t care about their needs.

Don’t underestimate the significance of what went on last week in Brussels for Northern Ireland. When the EU leaders met to rubber stamp the EU27 (all countries other than Britain’s) negotiation stance for Brexit, they said that three issues would be sorted before the more contentious negotiations: The ‘divorce bill’, the status of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in the EU, and the Irish border.

Brexit means that the Irish Republic will be in the EU, Northern Ireland not. Having removed border controls as part of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, to have to put them up again would be symbolically dangerous to say the least. But no border controls means that ‘illegal’ immigrants who want to enter the UK can come in through the Republic into Northern Ireland then move around at will. So can goods and services. No-one is sure how that works.

Even more significantly, the EU leaders confirmed that should there be a referendum in Northern Ireland to unite Ireland, that would mean Northern Ireland automatically rejoining the EU, even if the Article 50 process has been completed and the UK is out of the EU.

Under a normal, proportional election system, where the percentage of votes resembles the percentage of seats, this would cause quite a few seats to move from the DUP to Sinn Fein or the SDLP. In the 2015 election Sinn Fein got 1% fewer votes but four seats to the DUP’s seats.

The polling that is reported above, carried out by LucidTalk polling, suggests exactly that problem. Sinn Fein might take a seat from the Ulster Unionist Party, and they might take a few more seats, even with a lot more votes, but the DUP will hold onto most of their seats, and not much will change in terms of representation in the House of Commons. This is because DUP voters are geographically concentrated, and Sinn Fein voters are not as much. Sinn Fein may even get more of the popular vote. If that happens, it does send out an interesting message.

If that happenes, I would go as far as to say that the referendum that might come first, and the referendum that might change the face of the UK, could come in Ireland.


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