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UK general election result in the north

Sinn Féin stays ahead as unionist vote fragments

08 July 2024

TUV leader Jim Allister defeats Ian Paisley in North Antrim.

The outcome of the UK general election in the north of Ireland (see table at foot of article) confirmed a number of the trends that have emerged in elections since 2022.  These are: the consolidation of Sinn Féin as the largest single party; the fragmentation of Unionism and the decline of the DUP; and the continuing high level of support for others (mainly represented by Alliance).   The headlines were Sinn Féin gaining most seats in a Westminster election for the first time (adding to its leading position in the Assembly and councils); and the DUP losing both votes and seats.


Sinn Féin won 27% of the popular vote and retained all seven seats it had won in 2019.  Its vote saw a rise of 4%, and while it did not gain any additional seats, the winning margin in seats it already held was extended.  Support for Sinn Féin was similar to what the party achieved in the Assembly election of 2022. The DUP won 22% of the popular vote and lost three of the eight seats it had won in 2019.  Its vote declined by 8.5%.  As well as losing seats, the margin of victory in seats it did hold was greatly reduced.  Support for the DUP was similar to what the party achieved in the Assembly election of 2022.  The Alliance Party won 15% of the popular vote and one seat. Again, this was similar to the level of support achieved in the most recent Assembly election.

At a macro level the results of the general election in Northern Ireland are relatively stable with support for unionists, nationalists and others breaking down roughly 40:40:20 in percentage terms.  To get a better understanding of what is happening we need to examine the patterns within each voting bloc.  Here there is a dramatic contrast with two opposing trends occurring; consolidation within Nationalism and fragmentation within Unionism.  This is what accounts for Sinn Féin’s “success” and DUP “failure”.


Sinn Féin is the leading party overall because it is the leading party within Nationalism and is continuing to draw support from the SDLP. So, the 4% rise in the Sinn Féin vote corresponds almost exactly with the fall in support for the SDLP.  Sinn Féin are not growing on the back of a rising tide of nationalism, The combined nationalist vote of around forty percent has been constant for almost 30 years. It should also be noted that the Sinn Féin vote in the North is very different in the north than in the South. In the North it is largely a community vote rather than policy vote meaning that it is unlikely to collapse but also unlikely to grow at a dramatic rate. Indeed, given the stagnant nature of the overall nationalist vote the scope for growth is quite limited.  It also casts doubts on the claim that demographic changes in the North will inevitably lead to a united Ireland.  If this was the case then Nationalism would have overhauled Unionism years ago. Instead, surveys show low levels of support for a united Ireland and a decline in people who identify solely as Irish. This suggests that an increasing number of people from a nationalist background are comfortable with the status quo.


While DUP continues to be the leading party of Unionism its lead has fallen dramatically as it haemorrhages support to other unionist parties.  Its vote fell by over 8% in this election with most of this going to the TUV.  Two of the three seats the DUP lost went to other unionists, with the UUP taking South Antrim and the TUV taking North Antrim.  The loss of the DUP’s other seat in Lagan Valley to Alliance was also largely down to strong performances by the UUP and TUV candidates.  It is clear that the scare tactics used successfully by the DUP to rally support in past elections aren’t working anymore.  The intervention by former party leader Peter Robinson ahead of election day in which he denounced rival unionists as “spoilers” and “intentional vote-splitting candidates” fell flat.  Unionists are breaking with the DUP and most of these are going to the TUV.  This is evidence that a significant section of Unionism has rejected the power sharing arrangements at Stormont.  Their opposition to the so-called Irish Sea Border is really just a cover for this shift.  While it may not constitute a majority within Unionism it is enough to destabilise the DUP and put their continuation in the Stormont Executive in doubt.  That the DUP were already conceding ground during the campaign, admitting that the Safeguarding the Union deal had been oversold, shows the impact this is having.  In the post-election period, the pressure on the party is likely to increase.


It is a truism to say that all elections in the north are sectarian.  The only thing that really matters is whether Unionism or Nationalism comes on top.  It might be assumed that such a zero-sum game would create campaigns that are increasingly fractious and belligerent.  But that has not been the case. Recent election campaigns in the North have been described as low profile and even dull.  Old style Paisleyite rabble rousing rarely makes an appearance.  However, that does not make northern politics less sectarian.  It could be argued that sectarianism is actually worse; that its assumptions are now so ingrained and accepted they no longer need to be aroused.

This is undoubtedly the outcome of a 30 year long peace process that is founded upon the proposition that conflict in the north is about competing community identities.  The other main proposition is that imperialism is not a factor and that the British government would be willing to see an end to partition if that was the will of the people.  In this schema the task of unionists and nationalists is to build and maintain support for their respective political positions.  This has been most fully embraced by Sinn Féin whose whole political strategy revolves around securing and winning a border poll, which is itself bound up with the growth of Sinn Féin across the island.

Border poll

However, the assumptions on which this strategy rests are just false.  The most fundamental falsehood is that Britain has no strategic interests in Ireland.  This claim goes all the way back to the Downing Street Declaration of 1993.  But nothing has happened over the period since that suggests the British state wants to remove itself from Ireland. The financial crash, the Brexit negotiations, and the war in Ukraine have all served to reveal the extensive economic and geo-political interests that the UK has in Ireland and why any British government would want to maintain the status quo. Even before becoming PM Keir Starmer had ruled out a border poll and stated that in a hypothetical referendum a government led by him would campaign for the Union.  And it is not just the British.  The Irish government, the EU and the United States also favour the continuation of partition.  While they make gestures towards a united Ireland it is as a distant aspiration rather than as something they are working towards.  The border poll provision in the Good Friday Agreement can be seen in this light as well; as a gesture towards nationalism rather than a mechanism to bring about a united Ireland.

There are objective material facts that put claims that we are moving towards a united Ireland in doubt.  There are also subjective political ones, the most important of which is the faltering growth of Sinn Féin.  It was not long ago that Sinn Féin were riding high in the polls in the South with the real prospect that the party would enter government after the next general election.  The prospect of a Sinn Féin Taoiseach alongside a Sinn Féin First Minister was being discussed as a real possibility. However, with sliding poll ratings and a disappointing performance in the recent local and euro elections such a scenario now seems very unlikely.  While the different dynamics in the North mean that Sinn Féin will stay as the biggest party, its scope for further growth is limited.  If the established trend continues the growth of Sinn Féin will be glacial.  It may consolidate within the nationalist bloc but the time when nationalists constitute a majority in the north, or when Sinn Féin becomes the majority party, seems a very long way off.  That Sinn Féin are aware of this themselves is evidenced by their most recent election campaigns which have downplayed the demand for a border poll and instead focused on restoring the devolved institutions and securing the post of First Minister. Sinn Féin are concentrating on distributing the patronage that flows through Stormont rather than bringing it to an end.  Indeed, if they want to keep the institutions in place they will have to retreat on any demands that could further destabilise a DUP that is under pressure in the wake of poor election results.


Earlier in this article it was suggested that sectarianism had become less blatant.  However, that doesn't mean that violent sectarianism has gone away. It is still a daily occurrence and there were a number of notable examples over the period of the election campaign.  In the town of Antrim eight families were forced to flee their homes by racist and sectarian attacks by loyalists.  Add to this a loyalist show of strength in east Belfast where a thousand uniformed UVF members took control over a stretch of a major road; and the Orange Order raising tensions in north Belfast with an application for an evening parade passing Ardoyne on the Twelfth. At a time when the media is full of scare stories about the rise of the far right, these activities, which are much closer to fascism than anything presented in the elections, are barely mentioned.  They are just seen as the normality of life in the north of Ireland.

Left vote

A footnote of the election is the performance of the left.  This is almost exclusively PBP which ran in three constituencies and gained around 8,500 votes.  This was similar to its level of support in the general election of 2019.  The 5,000 votes for Gerry Carroll in west Belfast was a significant increase from the 3,000 he received in the Assembly election of 2022 when he barely managed to retain his seat.  Carroll made Gaza a prominent part of his campaign this time and that clearly boosted support for PBP in the constituency.

UK general election result (Northern Ireland)
popular vote
vote share / change
seats / change
Sinn Fein
27.0% (+4.2%)
7 (0)
22.1% (-8.5%)
5 (-3)
15.0% (-1.8%)
1 (0)
12.2% (+0.5)
1 (+1)
11.1% (-3.8%)
2 (0)
6.2% (+6.2%)
1 (0)
*the remaining NI seat was won by Independent Unionist Alex Easton in North Down

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