When the Middle Ground came Centre Stage: What do the results of the Brexit election mean for the constitutional debate in Northern Ireland?

Katy Hayward and Ben Rosher| 20 December 2019

© 2018 European Union

Were the results of the General Election in Northern Ireland a sign that Brexit has brought a mighty blow to unionism in Northern Ireland? For the first time, seats held by NI unionists are in a minority both in the Assembly and in the House of Commons. And the DUP is under pressure for sure. But it would be wrong to see this as a general ‘greening’ of the NI electorate, or, indeed, to the workings of what it likes to call a ‘pan-nationalist front’.

Instead, this really was a Brexit election in Northern Ireland. The DUP lost out (in votes and expected seat gains) because of a pro-Remain vote coming from unionist voters as well as nationalist ones. Most of the votes the DUP lost went to the Alliance party – a party known by its Remain credentials and also the fact that it chooses to be non-aligned on the so-called constitutional question. The ‘non-aligned’, middle ground – often overlooked in NI politics – seem to have come centre stage.

According to the NI Life & Times Survey (NILT),[i] 1 in 2 people in Northern Ireland identify as neither unionist nor nationalist. However, even they don’t get away with answering ‘The Question’ in Northern Ireland politics – and from this we see that the majority of such people are in favour of NI being part of the UK on condition of there being devolved NI government. The fact that they were fed up with the DUP-Sinn Féin impasse on this matter is perhaps reflected in the fact that the support for direct rule from this group rose significantly after almost 2 years of the devolved institutions being put on ice.

What is interesting is that these non-aligned individuals have not traditionally voted overwhelmingly for Alliance. Even as the proportion of the population who are ‘neither’ has grown, we have not seen Alliance gathering a greater proportion of their votes. Thus, Cathal McManus and Hayward argued in 2018 that “to be Neither Unionist nor Nationalist does not automatically mean you vote for an ‘alternative’ or middle ground party such as Alliance.” This is confirmed by these figures (below). ‘Neithers’ vote across the spectrum and –more notably– many don’t vote at all.

Did this change in 2019? Alliance did well in local and European elections in Northern Ireland. And they surprised everyone at their success in the general election, where the first past the post system tends to work against them. What this means is that perhaps these ‘neithers’ and soft unionists were motivated more by Remain (and possibly a protest vote against the DUP) and it is this change that made the difference.

The rise in nationalist-held seats came thanks to Sinn Féin’s success in North Belfast (which was anything but a ‘progressive’ campaign, fought as it was on very sectarian terms in some quarters), and also to the SDLP’s success in South Belfast (a huge support for the party’s Remain position, better reflecting the constituency’s referendum vote than the DUP incumbent), and in Foyle (where the SDLP reclaimed the seat from Sinn Féin). What this means is a protest against abstentionism, a failure to govern at regional level and a pro-Remain vote. It does not mean a surge to Irish unity.

That said, the context for people making those assessments has changed. Those who are ‘neither’ unionist nor nationalist have increasingly come to see Brexit as making a united Ireland more likely.

But – hold your horses – this is across the board. In 2016, 18% of Unionist respondents thought Brexit made a united Ireland more likely; by 2018 it was 28%. The proportion of Nationalists thinking this rose from 38% in 2016 to 64% in 2018. Perhaps just as important a trend over this time is the steady decline in those saying it had no effect.

Another way of looking at this is to do so by categorising respondents in terms of the party they support. By 2018, according to NILT, supporters of all parties of were increasingly minded to think that Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely. And note Alliance party supporters very much think this to be so.

But there is a big difference between expecting something and welcoming it. By the time of late 2018 (the latest time we have the data for), one third of DUP supporters were saying Brexit makes them even less in favour of a united Ireland. Unsurprisingly, half of Sinn Féin supporters said Brexit makes them even more in favour of it.

What is happening among the non-aligned? The NILT survey also finds almost one in three Alliance Party supporters say Brexit makes them more in favour of Irish unity. This has been the case since 2016, so is not a blip. However, in this they are out of line with those who are neither unionist nor nationalist more generally. At the time of the survey (late 2018), there was an increase among those saying it makes them less in favour, up from 5 to 12% since 2016. This would show that we would be wise to be cautious about jumping to rapid conclusions about what these results mean for the prospects for Irish unity.

That said, there is an earthquake happening across the UK. What will be left standing, what will fall and what will be built when the tremors subside is as yet unpredictable. But we can be sure that what happens to the middle ground in Northern Ireland is worth keeping an eye on.

What is happening in the middle, among the avowedly non-aligned, is fascinating. They are [now] voting. They were motivated, it seems, by Remain. They are increasingly of the view that Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely. But they are not necessarily in favour of it. Whilst people in NI are increasingly likely to think Brexit makes Irish unity more likely, there’s increasing polarization in terms of how people view the prospect.

[i] No source of survey data is without limitations. We use NILT cos it’s the most reliable source of time series data, i.e. tracking change in NI public opinion over years. Data is gathered at end of each calendar year. 2019 results will be out in June with more on all this.


Katy Hayward | Twitter

Queen’s University Belfast

Dr Katy Hayward is Reader in Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research interests include political sociology, European integration, cross-border conflict and cooperation, peace and conflict processes, and Brexit and Ireland.

Ben Rosher |

Queen’s University Belfast

Ben Rosher is a postgraduate student and Postgraduate Associate of the Institute for Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. His research focuses on critical security and border studies and he is currently working on an MRes and PhD investigating the biopolitics of the Irish border in the context of Brexit.