It was already clear on the night of the local election count that something had shifted in the Northern Irish political biosphere this election season. The DUP had gained votes, but lost seats. Sinn Féin had kept the same number of seats but had lost votes. Those designating as neither unionist nor nationalist – the ‘Others’ – had gained both votes and seats.
Thanks to Alan in Belfast and the Salmon of Data, we can examine the results of the local elections in more detail, and a clear trend, it seems, is emerging.
Unionism, with only 43 percent of first preference votes, has shrunk definitively to minority status. The gains, however, did not go mainly to their denominational opposites, the Irish Nationalist parties, but largely to Others.
Comparing the results to the last local election, Unionism has shrunk by some 26,389 votes between 2014 and 2019. Nationalism has gained 10,368. But the community of Others gained fully 65,899 first preference votes, rising to a total of 132,695, or around 19.5 percent of the vote.
All talk of ‘the two communities’ in Northern Ireland should now be consigned unambiguously to the dustbin. There are (at least) three communities, all of them minorities.
Unionism’s attempt to consolidate itself around a strong, hard-line party, the DUP has succeeded in strengthening that party’s vote (though not share of seats); but unionism as a whole has shrunk down to a minority. The DUP’s gain in votes will have given them something to cheer about, but this should be set beside severe losses among other hard-line unionist parties, such as TUV and UKIP, and the ongoing decline of the UUP.
The nationalist vote has gone up, but not by a great deal, and in any case, they did not make great gains in terms of seat numbers.
Compare the first preferences from these local election results to the most recent Assembly election:
Assembly Election 2017:
- Unionists: 360k
- Nationaliists: 320k
- Others: 110k
Local Elections 2019:
- Unionists: 289k
- Nationalists: 255k
- Others: 132k
Others were already growing remarkably in 2017, passing the 100 thousand first preference vote mark for the first time. But even then, in what was a tremendously successful election, they were less than a third the size of the unionist block. Now they are approaching a half. An analysis of the voting record since, say, 2011, would show that this is a community on the rise. It is a diverse community – whose members, ranging from the conservative to the radical, have nothing to unite them other than the refusal to be governed by the dominant two-community paradigm – but it has more power than its simple numbers might indicate.
If the unionist community is now a minority community, representing little over two fifths, and the community of others now represents nearly a fifth of the voting population, the lesson seems clear: unionism needs to start reaching out to others, making Northern Ireland the sort of place non-unionists want to live, if they are to preserve the union. Unionism now needs the votes of others to make up a majority.
By the same token, nationalists are also a minority – not even two in five. They, too, will need to persuade the others if they are to move towards their long-term goal of a united Ireland.
This, in theory, gives the others more power than you might think, just looking at the raw numbers.
The rise of the community of others represents a change in the political dynamics of Northern Ireland, and may lead to the injection of further new dynamics, not least because a good number of those others (the Greens, People Before Profit) come from a progressive and left leaning movement.
It’s going to be very hard for the unionists to turn this round, because they have spent so long shoring up their own base by demonising everyone who is not a hard-line unionist. But they need to see, now, the diminishing returns of this strategy, especially after the imminent end of the confidence and supply arrangement that only a very unusual set of Westminster circumstances dropped into their surprised hands.
In practice this means making NI more like the sort of place others want to live by, for example, bringing the place up to speed on equal marriage, by showing some semblance of concern for the wishes of the majority in the region who wanted to remain in the EU, and by giving the people of NI the same reproductive healthcare rights they have elsewhere in the UK, or better. After all, they can now get all these things in the Republic of Ireland. Keep hectoring and alienating the others, and you can guarantee eventually they will lose patience, and begin to explore the potential benefits of reunification.
In other words, the biggest current threat to the union is hard-line unionism.
For years, for decades, the Community of Others (COO) has resisted being drawn in and ground down by the binary reduction machine of NI politics, whereby one is obliged to ‘belong’ to one and only one of two and only two diametrically opposed denominations. The COO is not a community of identity – you don’t belong to it by virtue of birth, or because of some supposedly immutable shared identity. You belong, if at all, because you know that we need to build democracy, not domination; that society is nothing but differences; and that instead of trying to reduce this, it is possible to embrace and enjoy those differences as something exciting, that for all the challenges, has at least the potential to enrich us all.
Given the recent election results (and it will be interesting to see how the imminent EU results bear this out), the community of others appears to be reaching a critical mass, just at a time when the tectonic plates of Irish, British and European politics are shifting.
This would be a great time to join the COO.