The changing face of Irish nationalism could change Westminster too

Labour is ignoring a profound change in Northern Ireland politics that could impact its chances of forming a government in a hung parliament.

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One of the most important lessons of the 2017 election was that Northern Ireland’s 18 MPs matter. Even the pollsters that got the unexpected result right did not predict that 10 DUP MPs would hold the balance of power, because they did not do any polling in Northern Ireland at all.

None of the big British polling houses do.  Their defence is that Northern Ireland accounts for just three per cent of the United Kingdom’s total population and its unique set of political parties mean the job is simply too much hassle for relatively little additional information.

Fair enough. But in these times, knowing that Northern Ireland’s voters will return 18 MPs - as they have done at every election since 1997 – doesn’t tell us anything. What matters for parties seeking to govern in hung parliaments, or for prime ministers lumbered with small majorities, is who exactly those MPs are.

Westminster woke up to this essential truth in June 2017, when the DUP won an unprecedented 10 of those 18 seats, Sinn Fein seven, and independent unionist Sylvia Hermon one. Arlene Foster’s party – notwithstanding Brexit divisions – are predisposed to working with the Conservatives. Their republican rivals do not take their seats and thus lower the threshold any would-be government must pass. Hermon, meanwhile, has said she will never vote in such a way as to put Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street.

Those numbers, and the politics behind them, explain why both the Labour leader and Theresa May have sought the affections of the DUP with such enthusiasm. If you want a reliable route to a majority in this parliament, they are the only show in town. Yet next to nobody in Westminster is talking about a change to Northern Ireland’s politics that will matter to whoever seeks to form the next UK government.

Last weekend the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, Labour’s Northern Irish sister party, voted to pursue a new relationship with the Republic’s Fianna Fail. Once the dominant party of Northern nationalism, the SDLP has endured a long decline since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement that John Hume, its revered former leader and Nobel laureate, was to a greater extent than any other politician responsible for. All three of its MPs lost their seats in 2017 – two to Sinn Fein, and one to the DUP – and its support at Stormont elections is receding too.

Its leadership has as good as admitted that its new partnership with Fianna Fail – for decades the party of government in Dublin before its support crumbled after the financial crash of 2008 – represents one last throw of the dice. The vague hope is that the two parties will be able to fashion a new all-Ireland policy agenda and claw back support from nationalist voters that way. It’s an argument rooted in hope and faith more than anything else.

Will it work? The SDLP leadership are curiously reticent. Its case was made not with a bang but a whimper and a shrug. For a sizeable minority of its members – some of whom have resigned – the partnership is an affront to the party’s history of collaborating with all parties in Dublin and the S, D and L in its name. Despite its reputation as a party for middle class Catholics who don’t like Sinn Fein, it retains a strong leftist and social democratic tradition at odds with Fianna Fail’s position on the centre right.  

The ideological contradiction at the heart of the partnership has already lost the SDLP its most convincing media performer in South Belfast assembly member Claire Hanna, who resigned the party whip and her position as its Brexit spokesperson yesterday (she was the only SDLP politician to attend last year’s Labour conference). The coterminous Westminster seat is one of those the party lost in 2017 – remarkably, despite its 69.5 per cent vote in favour of Remain, to the DUP. Hanna might well have won it back at the next election. It is very hard to see her doing so under the SDLP banner now.

Elsewhere, an exclusive relationship with a party that personifies the innate irredentism of southern nationalism could deprive the party of its electoral sine qua non: its cross-community appeal. Throughout the Troubles its focus was always on nationalists – and securing them a peaceful, politically sustainable and just coexistence with the unionist majority – rather than zero sum nationalism. Fianna Fail is the Republican Party. Though some argue unionists will continue to vote SDLP to keep Sinn Fein out, the tension is obvious.

Although those in the SDLP who support the partnership argue that they are a nationalist party first, their reputation for pluralism was and is important. Going greener, or being seen to, could imperil it. That strategy is fraught too: there is no conceivable way they will be able to outflank Sinn Fein, who already organise on an all-Ireland basis, on the constitutional question. Fianna Fail’s record in government in Dublin provides a bottomless well of attack material for Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill. Aontu, a new pro-life republican movement formed by disgruntled members of Sinn Fein, could cannibalise its rural base too.

The upshot of all of this is that the electoral landscape could well become even less hospitable to the SDLP. Its first test will come at the local elections in May. If it performs badly, the obvious question will be why the party bothered doing something it couldn’t explain convincingly and knew had the potential to curtail its electoral appeal, possibly terminally.

At which point we return to a Westminster in hock to the DUP. Labour has made no secret of its desire to strike a deal with the unionists in a hung parliament. To that end it has mimicked their absolutist line on the backstop and ignored the SDLP’s repeated pleas to support it. This despite Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s longstanding and enthusiastically advertised sympathies for Irish nationalism. Brexit has not so much changed the game for Northern nationalism but confirmed that London politicians, regardless of the poses they strike, are playing an entirely different one.

Labour’s flirtation with the DUP is the best advertisement advocates for the SDLP’s new strategy could ask for. It underlines the extent to which they will at best only ever be seen by the Labour leadership as one of any number of interchangeable bit-part players in the Westminster power game. Accordingly, there has been no official Labour response to this week’s news. Its review into running candidates in Northern Ireland – a perennial complaint from its members there, as well as Unite – is to discuss holding new evidence sessions this week. But sources say the party is unlikely to act unless the SDLP is kicked out of the Party of European Socialists and there is no appetite to plough money and resources into organising and lose 18 deposits in return.

That, however, doesn’t immediately matter. What will in a hung parliament is who exactly wins the 18. On current evidence, the SDLP will struggle to win one back, let alone three. Those are votes that would only ever have helped a Labour government, though the people who aspire to lead it aren’t particularly interested. But given that another near clean-sweep of Westminster seats by Sinn Fein and the DUP is more likely than not to help the Conservatives, perhaps they ought to be.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.