The awakening of dormant nationalism

20 March 2017 - by Anna Mercer

The outcome of the recent Assembly election has been regarded by some as a “watershed moment” for nationalism in Northern Ireland, after the historic unionist majority, which had been held in all local parliaments since 1922, was removed.

Whilst the unionist parties (and an independent unionist) still hold more seats than their nationalist counterparts  40 to 39 – the presence of 11 MLAs designating as 'other' means that there is now no automatic unionist majority, prompting renewed calls for unionist unity.

But what is really happening here? Why the surge in the nationalist vote?

In an election that saw a significant increase in voter participation, up by nearly 10 per cent on the 2016 Assembly election and even beating the EU referendum numbers by around 2 percentage points, it is clear that people felt compelled to vote. In a toss-up between apathy and anger, it would seem that the prevailing mood within the nationalist electorate was anger, or perhaps a desire for change.

This can be distilled into two things: Brexit and a reaction to the perceived lack of equality, and respect, coming from some parts of unionism. This accusation was levied most recently around the retraction of an Irish language bursary for young people (that decision was later reversed), alleged arrogance in the failure of First Minister Arlene Foster to step aside in the wake of the RHI revelations, and the subsequent debate around an Irish Language Act.

Taking Brexit first, this may be the overarching cause of larger numbers at polls. Northern Ireland chose to remain part of the EU in a vote which transcended the traditional unionist-nationalist split. This, coupled with the absence of any real engagement on the issue between the now defunct Executive and Westminster, may have activated a hitherto dormant nationalism which, otherwise content with the status-quo until it was thrown into question by the UK-wide referendum result.

Indeed, there is some evidence to support this, albeit anecdotally, namely the rise in Irish passport applications since June's referendum.  As of February this year, there had been a 56 per cent increase from Northern Ireland on the previous year. This is likely a reaction to Brexit, but it may also show an activation of an awareness of identity.

Whilst many nationalists were content to exist in a Northern Ireland within the UK – if previous lower turnouts can be interpreted as evidence of this – the implications of a more isolationist UK, outside of the EU, have clearly disturbed many, particularly in relation to what it means for future all-Ireland relations.

The second reason for an increase in the nationalist vote would appear to stem from the alleged absence of parity for the Irish identity. There exist legitimate arguments on inequalities across the communities, but the recent reaction to comments made by the DUP on the Irish language and the comparing of Sinn Féin to “a crocodile” may have flicked a switch in the minds of some voters that the way to register this anger was through voting nationalist.

The outworkings of this large turnout have led to Sinn Féin, buoyed with the confidence of an enhanced mandate, calling for an “urgent” border poll. However, in a period of political instability, as talks continue to try to find a way of forming a new Executive, many may feel this political opportunism is unhelpful.

In any event, the electorate has spoken, and nationalism has awoken from its slumber. Whether this is a one-off reaction, or a turn in the road of the new normal, won’t be clear until the next election – which could be sooner than later if progress is not made in the current negotiations.

This article was first published on 17 March by