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Good morning. Breaking news that Suella Braverman has been sacked in Rishi Sunak’s cabinet reshuffle will please many in Northern Ireland, who had been incensed by her recent comments. James Cleverly has been appointed to take her place. All eyes now on whether Chris Heaton-Harris remains as Northern Ireland secretary.
The former home secretary managed to anger all communities in Northern Ireland last week by saying pro-Palestinian “hate” marches were “disturbingly reminiscent of Ulster”. It appeared she did not know that the community that does the marching in Northern Ireland are the pro-UK unionists . . .
But for now, before Stephen returns from his holiday tomorrow, here are some thoughts on Northern Ireland, Stormont and Sinn Féin, whose party conference I attended this weekend.
Hot off the presses this morning is a new opinion poll by the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies for the Irish News newspaper that delivers some fascinating food for thought.
Two findings in particular leap out. The first is that Northern Ireland’s political paralysis could be turning unionist voters off their commitment to the UK — which, ironically, is the reason why the Democratic Unionist party torpedoed the Stormont power-sharing executive in February 2022 and has boycotted it entirely since May last year.
The other is that Sinn Féin — a pro-Irish unity party once seen as the mouthpiece of the IRA, which refuses to take up its seats in Westminster — could be on course for its strongest showing in the UK general election.
Taking the political crisis first. As Pete Shirlow, director of the Institute of Irish Studies, told me: “What comes out very clearly in our survey — and this is the first time I’ve seen this — is that people who are pro-union are stating that they will think about Irish unity if the assembly doesn’t come back. Unionist behaviour has driven away sectors of [its] electorate.”
More starkly still, Shirlow said neither Brexit, nor a growing public conversation about reunification or a “new Ireland” in recent months, had made a significant impact on people’s attitudes towards unity in Northern Ireland (a reminder: polls show most people in Northern Ireland don’t want reunification; most in the south do, but don’t want to have to pay for it; and a “border poll” can only be called by the UK government).
What that means, Shirlow said, is: “It’s only unionism [that] can create a united Ireland.”
The idea that DUP intransigence could open the door to a prospect that remains anathema to many unionist voters poses a challenge for Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, who has been holding out for months for still more changes to the post-Brexit Windsor framework trading regime for Northern Ireland.
Specifically, he wants the region’s place within the UK, and ability to trade with Britain, copper-fastened in law. There was no mention of anything in the King’s Speech last week and while some kind of statutory instrument — which even officials say would be only a fig leaf — could be used, there is no clarity yet on whether it will be implemented or what it would say.
Donaldson is a cautious politician who appears reluctant to tell fierce critics within his own party that he cannot deliver on all their demands. He has floated the idea of creating some (as yet vague) East-West council to promote enhanced co-operation, and a streamlined green customs lane for goods staying in Northern Ireland that could be part of any deal.
Chris Heaton-Harris insists agreement with the DUP is within reach and talks are progressing. But Dublin says negotiations appear to have fizzled out and even some UK officials only give them a 50:50 chance of success.
What all sides do appear to agree on, however, is that unless a deal is done soon, UK electioneering will take over and Stormont could face many more months in mothballs. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, at her party’s conference in Athlone on Saturday, said the British government must “stop endlessly indulging” the DUP boycott.
The last chance saloon could be a November 23-24 meeting of the British-Irish Council, which includes the devolved UK executives plus the UK and Irish governments, followed by the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference the following week. Hope may spring eternal but those eyeing a breakthrough at either of those meetings in Dublin may be wise to wait sitting down.
Donaldson maintains he has a mandate from voters to stay out of Stormont until he has secured the changes his party wants. A new poll by Lucid Talk earlier this month appeared to back that up: support for the DUP rose by two points.
But the Irish News/Liverpool University poll makes chastening reading. It found Sinn Féin on course to grab 31 per cent of the vote in the UK general election to the DUP’s 25 per cent, the worst Westminster result in a decade for the once dominant unionist party.
As a reminder, Sinn Féin is now the largest party in Northern Ireland’s Stormont assembly and in local government across the region, as well as the most popular in the south — where there are expectations that an Irish general election could also be held next year (the vote is due by March 2025).
Whether Sinn Féin can win enough votes to form a government in the Republic, is not a given, however (and a subject for another day). Local and European elections in the Republic are due in June, which will give an indicator of Sinn Féin’s strength.
But change was the buzzword at the Sinn Féin conference, as McDonald made her pitch to broaden the party’s appeal and win over voters who may have a visceral objection to the party because of its past.
There was talk of Irish reunification, of course, but fixing Ireland’s dire housing crisis “once and for all” was the party’s “number one priority”, she said. The tone from McDonald and other senior party figures was moderate as it swings into trust-building mode: “We have the plans. We have the team. We ask for our chance,” she said. “The others have had theirs.”
Now try this
I was in West Kerry last week and was delighted to stumble across the South Pole Inn, set up by Tom Crean, a veteran of the Scott and Shackleton explorations in Antarctica. I am reading An Unsung Hero, about Crean’s life, at the moment. Sadly, the pub was shut on the day I went but it’s a gorgeous part of the world and I’ll be heading back there soon.
Next on my reading list is Close to Home by Belfast writer Michael Magee, whom I met recently in the gloriously sumptuous surroundings of the Provost’s House at Trinity College Dublin, where he was the recipient of the Rooney Prize for Irish Fiction. I can’t wait to dive into its exploration of class and identity in Northern Ireland.
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