By Joe Leary
Special to the BIR
The recent British Parliamentary elections indicate a dramatic new phase in Northern Ireland’s journey towards peaceful change. New leaders in London, a continuing increase in National/Republican votes, Unionist parties in disarray, and the promise of lower corporate tax rates all portend change. It appears much is happening to set the stage for movement towards a United Ireland.
The success of the two Nationalist/Republican political parties, Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic Labor Party (SDLP), both aggressively advocating Northern Ireland unity with the Republic of Ireland, was seen in many of the 18 constituencies where the election was fought.
SDLP member of Parliament Alasdair McDonnell, who was considered very lucky to have won his seat five years ago because of a split Unionist vote, tallied more votes than the combined opposition in South Belfast in winning this time (with the help of brother Nationalists in Sinn Fein).
Similarly, Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew, in the Fermanagh and SouthTyrone constituency, beat the Unionist consensus candidate Rodney Connor after three recounts by a very small margin – four votes. Unionists, with help from London, had great hope for this district and although the margin was small it was a major victory for Sinn Fein and all Nationalists.
Mark Durkan, retiring head of the SDLP, maintained his seat in parliament with a clear victory in his city of Derry. One of the noteworthy elements of this election was the combined Nationalist vote of 76.6 percent in his constituency. Margaret Ritchie, the new leader of the SDLP, was elected to the British Parliament, taking fellow SDLP member Eddie McGrady’s long-held seat in South Down and giving the resurgent SDLP a total of three British Parliament seats.
Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, was re-elected overwhelmingly, gathering 71.1 percent of the vote, an astounding figure that indicates strong personal approval for his leadership within his West Belfast district. The total Nationalist/Republican vote in West Belfast was 87.5 percent. Martin McGinness, running in the Mid-Ulster district, won 52 percent of the vote and the other nationalist candidate received 14.3 percent for a total of 66.3 percent of the vote for unity with the Republic.
In the biggest surprise of all in the North, the leader of the hard line Unionists, Peter Robinson of the DUP, lost his seat to Naomi Long of the Alliance Party, which tries to set itself as an alternative between Unionists and Nationalists. Long’s win was anticipated by no one. The other unionist leader, Sir Reg Empey of the more moderate Ulster Unionists, also lost in this election, leaving the entire Unionist side without a clear leader, a disastrous situation for Unionism and its pursuit of maintaining and strengthening ties with the United Kingdom.
In total, the Nationalist/Republican side elected eight members of the British Parliament (five Sinn Fein, three SDLP) for the first time equaling the eight elected by the Unionists. Sinn Fein, though it actively pursues election to the Parliament, refuses to pledge allegiance to the Queen and therefore does not take its seats.
To be objective it should be recognized that the Unionist vote, if organized as a single party, would surpass the Nationalist vote, assuming all Alliance Party votes and all Independent votes were Unionist. Certainly the majority of these votes would be Unionist, but some would not. In this election those who voted Unionist and those who voted Nationalist were about tied.
According to the Belfast Telegraph, Robert Saulters head of the notoriously divisive Orange Order, has begun to call for “one big Unionist Party.” This may become a reality soon, especially if the Nationalist parties continue to succeed. A powerful reason for Unionists to join together is the prospect of either Gerry Adams or Martin McGinness being elected First Minister of Northern Ireland – a thought even now causing great difficulty in the Unionist community.
It appears undeniable, however, that each election adds strength to the future prospect of a United Ireland.
In fallout from the election the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister, David Cameron, has appointed Owen Paterson as his Northern Ireland Secretary of State. In a surprise, Paterson has announced that he is studying the idea of devolving corporate tax authority to Northern Ireland to make them more competitive with the Republic of Ireland’s 12.5 percent -- another step in removing a barrier between the North and South. This move has been tenaciously resisted by hardline Unionists but more and more Northern Ireland business men have been recommending it as a solution to the nearly complete dependency of financial aid from London in operating Northern Ireland society.
Paterson said that state spending – meaning the British government – represents 77.6 percent of GDP in Northern Ireland, meaning that Northern Ireland as a free standing state or even province is economically unsustainable. The new conservative government may be sending up trial balloons with this tax idea since they are facing huge deficits in England, Scotland, and Wales.
The prospect of a unified tax system throughout Ireland would be a major step towards unification.