As the battle for Northern Ireland’s 18 seats gets under way, here are some of the main issues likely to be raised on the doorsteps over the coming six weeks.
Undoubtedly the touchstone issue of the election. Unsurprisingly for Northern Ireland, Brexit has become entwined with the constitutional question, as the impasse over the withdrawal treaty distilled down to whether trade barriers would be erected on the Irish border or down the Irish Sea. The current deal, which proposed the latter solution, has angered unionists and loyalists, who claim it will undermine Northern Ireland’s place within the UK. Meanwhile, business and agricultural sectors have warned of potential catastrophic economic consequences of a no deal.
Brexit has pushed the issue of Irish unity into the political mainstream – a development that has already heightened tensions around the election campaign. Northern Ireland voted Remain by 56% in the 2016 referendum. Of the five parties with realistic chances of winning seats, the DUP is pro-Brexit; Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance are pro-Remain; while the UUP’s incoming leader favours Remain over the current deal. The campaign could prove somewhat uncomfortable for the DUP, amid unionist fury about the Irish Sea border signed off by the party’s supposed Westminster ally, Boris Johnson.
Electoral alliances are nothing new in Northern Ireland but this time round the dynamic has been altered by Brexit. The Remain/Leave fault line has prompted link-ups, whether official or unspoken, not seen in previous polls. Sinn Fein and the SDLP have both stepped aside in three constituencies in an effort to help pro-Remain candidates defeat DUP Brexiteers. The SDLP decision to not contest North Belfast for the first time in its history will aid Sinn Fein’s chances of unseating DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds. Sinn Fein has reciprocated in South Belfast, leaving the field to help the SDLP take another DUP seat. Both parties have stepped down in East Belfast and North Down – moves designed to help Alliance Party leader Naomi Long and independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon respectively.
Conversely, Brexit had, for a time, looked like ending recent unionist co-operation in key marginals, when incoming Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken announced his intention to run in all 18 constituencies. Within a week however – and before Mr Aiken had even been formally elected leader – he went back on that pledge and said his party would now not stand in North Belfast, to help Mr Dodds’ chances. That move, along with the SDLP’s decision in the same constituency, has prompted claims of hypocrisy, given the UUP’s trenchant criticism of the DUP’s handling of Brexit and the SDLP’s vocal opposition to Sinn Fein’s Westminster abstentionist policy.
The cross-community Alliance Party, which could contend for DUP seats in south and east Belfast, has refused to engage in any pacts, and will stand in all 18 constituencies.
Sinn Fein’s 100-year-old policy of not taking its seats at Westminster is always a hot topic come General Election time. However, Brexit, and in particular the knife-edge nature of some of the parliamentary votes, has increased focus on its abstentionist stance. Despite criticism from all the other main Stormont parties, Sinn Fein has shown absolutely no inclination to review its position, as it continues to maintain that Irish interests will never be protected in a British Parliament.
Abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland last month as a consequence of legislation passed at Westminster in the ongoing absence of powersharing. The Government has now a responsibility to introduce abortion services in the region by next April. The emotive issue is highly divisive in the region. In an unorthodox move, unionist MLAs last month convened a special sitting of the Assembly, despite there being no powersharing executive, in a bid to thwart the law change. With Sinn Fein and the SDLP opposing efforts to reconvene the legislature without a wider political deal to restore a coalition government, the attempt to stop decriminalisation failed. Sinn Fein and SDLP candidates are likely to face questions on the doorsteps from conservative supporters unhappy at the law change and could lose some votes to candidates with a strong anti-abortion stance, including those from the relatively new party Aontu.
The election will take place a month prior to the third anniversary of the collapse of powersharing. While the poll is ostensibly focused on Westminster issues, it will be seen by many as a proxy judgment on the malaise at Stormont. The smaller parties are pointing to the ongoing failure of the DUP and Sinn Fein to resurrect the institutions as a compelling reason to vote for an alternative.