A lot of partisan views have been expressed on the results of last week’s regional elections in the north of Ireland. And principally by commentators in the United Kingdom or sympathetic to the UK (including the usual suspects here) attacking and downplaying the vote for Sinn Féin and/or northern nationalist parties in general while defending and hailing the vote for the Democratic Unionist Party and/or unionist parties in general. However, despite all the obfuscation, it is clear that there is more than mere symbolism in the possibility of a member of what was the minority community in the north-east of the country leading its regional government, with SF’s Michelle O’Neill likely to be chosen as the new First Minister. If the DUP agrees.
If fact, the electoral landscape of the Six Counties has now divided itself into three somewhat fluid constitutional blocs: pro-union, pro-unity and pro-neutral. That division is even starker in the polling percentages, with a rough 42.0%-42.1% pro-union, 41.6%-41.7% pro-unity and 16.2%-16.3% pro-neutral outcome on first preference votes (depending on how you count them). In all likelihood, the gap between pro-union and pro-unity voters in the north is around 5000 votes. Which is astonishing for a territory that, as the BBC noted for its viewers in Britain, was purposefully carved off by the UK from the rest of island to create a politico-military redoubt with an inbuilt and supposedly perpetual unionist majority.
Except, as we now know, the Northern Pale is no more, and the unionist and nationalist communities, broadly defined, are now effectively equal in numbers and influence.
But what of the pro-neutral bloc, the constitutionally ambiguous collective of voters who support the Alliance Party, the Green Party and others? Even here, the triad of national preferences is visible, with polling by Lucid Talk indicating that Alliance voters, for instance, split 31% pro-union, 33% pro-unity and 36% unsure – but still likely to vote when a referendum on ending partition is held.
It seems that the don’t-ask/don’t-tell bloc is slightly more disposed towards the pro-unity argument than not. And with a significant number of second-preference votes floating between SF and AP supporters at the recent elections, the foundations for a future “Yes” campaign are looking not just deep, but also increasingly wide.