"Dreary Steeples" Now Commanding Attention

09 June 2017 - by Quintin Oliver

"The whole map of Europe has been changed ... but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again."

Sir Winston Churchill, February 16, 1922

This election campaign was deemed by commentators as boring and lacklustre. The reaction from voters shows the opposite. Despite a move towards a presidential-type, leadership-focused campaign (‘Strong and Stable’), this was a ground war where parties worked on the doorsteps to turn out the vote out. And they did, in many different local campaigns.

In Northern Ireland, the DUP and Sinn Féin have consolidated their positions, while wiping out both the UUP (who lost their two seats) and the SDLP (who saw all three fall away) in the process.

The contributions of Mark Durkan, Alasdair McDonnell and Margaret Ritchie in the House of Commons and various parliamentary committees, along with their defence of Northern Ireland’s interests in both the Brexit and welfare reform debates, were not enough to protect this trio of erstwhile SDLP leaders from Sinn Féin’s rising tide. The UUP’s Tom Elliott, too, was victim to this surge, Michelle Gildernew taking back for Sinn Féin the aforementioned “dreary steeples” of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. This reflects the fact that, on this side of the Irish Sea, the general election was an updated version of March’s snap Assembly contest.

A DUP win in Belfast South was boosted by another gain in South Antrim, where Danny Kinahan of the UUP was defeated two years after his surprise victory over DUP veteran Willie McCrea. There had been an expectation in 2015 that the party would hold the king-making role in a hung parliament. While it did not materialise then, that situation has now come to pass. The DUP has committed to help the Conservatives reach over the magic 326-seat majority figure – probably on the supply-and-demand type approach currently enjoyed by the government in the Republic of Ireland, with Fianna Fáil supporting a Fine Gael and independent minority.

The DUP is now in a very strong position to extract concessions in return for its MPs’ votes. In the context of Brexit, what will these look like? A ‘no special status for Northern Ireland’ demand has now already been agreed, apparently, with Theresa May. But also expect trading on infrastructure funding, successors to EU funds (including direct payment support for farmers), corporation tax and various flagship projects. Beyond Brexit, how will victims issues be dealt with? What of prosecutions of former British army soldiers for Troubles-related actions? We can anticipate side deals and under-the-radar commitments, too, on the legacy of the past, as we term the outworkings of our most recent 40-year conflict

So what are the takeaways from last night in Northern Ireland?

• Overall turnout 65.6 per cent, up by seven points; 

  • One major story is the wipe-out of both the SDLP and the UUP, including the losses by Durkan in Foyle, Ritchie in South Down and McDonnell in Belfast South;

  • Gains made by the DUP and Sinn Féin, with 10 seats (up two) and seven (up three), respectively. In spite of the former’s inroads, independent Lady Sylvia Hermon managed to hold on in North Down;

  • Major DUP vote surge in this election – up 10.3 per cent on last general election; the UUP’s share was down 5.8 per cent. This shift was prompted, perhaps, by Sinn Féin’s rise in the recent Assembly elections;

  • Sinn Féin’s share of the vote up 4.9 per cent, while the SDLP was down 2.2 per cent;

  • Four women MPs, of 18 total (22.2 per cent);

  • DUP is currently the most googled political party and its site has now crashed. The party’s manifesto is available on Stratagem’s here;

  • With the certainty of Sinn Féin continuing its abstentionism at Westminster, there will be no nationalist MPs representing Northern Ireland on the green benches

  • The DUP published a list of demands in their 2015 Manifesto when a hung parliament was anticipated; although this didn't transpire, the asks will no doubt form the starting point for the party in terms of negotiating s "confidence and supply" deal with the Conservative Party.


So, as May goes to the Palace with the support of the DUP, the politics of this island are back at the heart of British politics to a degree we have not seen in a very long time; Winston Churchill was prescient a century ago.