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Labour Urged to ‘Redouble Efforts’ in Implementing Good Friday Agreement in Full as Political Unionism Deteriorates in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland will now be represented by a wide range of views in Westminster – but while Keir Starmer has years of austerity to undo he’s been urged not to forget about NI

Newly elected Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer greets well-wishers as he arrives at his official London residence at No 10 Downing Street for the first time on July 5. Photo: PA Images / Alamy
Newly elected Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer greets well-wishers as he arrives at his official London residence at No 10 Downing Street for the first time on July 5. Photo: PA Images / Alamy

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Like the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland is waking up to an unfamiliar political horizon.

Labour’s victory ends 14 years of corrosive conservatism that brought British-Irish relations to their lowest ebb; it now falls to Keir Starmer to build new political relationships across these islands, to do so the Labour party has to wake up to the changing landscape in Northern Ireland.

Dominated by identity politics, Northern Ireland has cultivated contention between unionism and nationalism since its inception, and there’s a clear winner finally emerging.

Sinn Fein MP for Mid Ulster Cathal Mallaghan celebrates his election with Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald at Meadowbank Sports Arena, Magherafelt, during the count for the 2024 General Election on July 5. Photo: PA Images / Alamy

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lost three of its sitting MPs in the small hours of the morning, and almost lost a fourth in a knife-edge count in East Derry which saw Sinn Fein’s Kathleen McGurk run the DUP’s Gregory Campbell’s majority down from over 9,000 to 179.

Elections are rarely short of surprises, but few could have predicted that the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jr – son of founder Rev Ian Paisley – would be ousted in North Antrim where the Paisley family held the seat for 54 years.

The end of the Paisley era is a manifestation of a larger deterioration of political unionism in Northern Ireland. Following Brexit, unionism has been in steady decline in every election. The continued buoyancy of Sinn Fein makes any rebound for unionism appear fantastical.

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Whilst not gaining seats in the general election, Sinn Féin successfully defended its seven seats and increased its vote share across Northern Ireland. With the DUP falling from eight seats to five, Sinn Féin has now become the largest party at Westminster.

In 2022, the party made history by becoming the largest party at the devolved assembly, and in 2023 made history again as the largest party at local government.

If the future of Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is tied to the constitutional preferences of its political representatives, then a clear frontrunner is emerging. 

This split within unionism is clearly exemplified by the election results, wherein South Antrim unseated the DUP in favour of the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), a party that openly opposed the DUP’s collapse of Stormont over the Protocol. In North Antrim, however, the DUP lost its seat to the leader of hardline unionist party Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).

For those unfamiliar with Allister, expect bellowing speeches decrying the Windsor Framework as the “surrender deal”, lamenting the protocol as “partitioning” the United Kingdom – a particularly inflammatory choice of language for a politician from an island that is literally partitioned by a geo-political border – and lots of complaining about smoky bacon crisps and British sausages.

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Elsewhere, the Alliance party – which describes itself as neither unionist nor nationalist – gained Lagan Valley, a seat held by former DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson for 27 years. This high was muted, however, by the loss of North Down to independent unionist Alex Easton. Despite returning only one MP, the party is competitive in East Belfast and East Antrim – no doubt top targets for the next election.

The Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) held its two seats but faced considerable declines in vote share and majorities. The party will have been relieved to return two MPs, but with no other competitive seats it has little room to grow.

Northern Ireland will, for a change, be represented by a wide range of views in Westminster; as an abstention party, Sinn Féin will not be taking its seats, instead aiming to build consensus for constitutional change.

Starmer’s in-tray will be sky high as Labour attempts to undo the damage of years of Conservative austerity and Brexit, but Northern Ireland also needs tended-to.

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Labour have already committed to scrapping the Conservatives’ controversial Legacy Act, which was opposed by all of Northern Ireland’s political parties and victims groups, but this is only one area that needs urgently addressed.

Stormont may be back up and running, but it isn’t stable. Reforming how Northern Ireland’s political institutions operate is long overdue, and then there’s the unfinished work of the Good Friday Agreement – supposedly a jewel in Labour’s crown.

The vast majority of rights-based provisions including a Bill of Rights were never implemented. If labour is serious about the peace process, it must redouble efforts in successfully implementing the Agreement in-full. Part of that should also include outlining the criteria for calling a border poll; with unionism in terminal decline and Sinn Féin ever-growing, it is critical that a pathway for a democratic vote on the constitutional future of Ireland is created.


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