Brexit divisions likely to dominate election in Northern Ireland

A deep divide between Northern Ireland’s parties over Brexit is set to dominate the forthcoming general election.

It has been more than three years since the UK voted to leave the European Union, but at that 2016 referendum, a narrow majority (56%) in Northern Ireland opted for Remain.

The DUP has been firmly in the Leave camp, while their nearest rivals Sinn Fein have been strongly opposed to the region leaving the EU with the rest of the UK.

DUP conference 2019
DUP leader Arlene Foster speaking at her party conference last weekend (Michael Cooper/PA)

Of the smaller parties, the SDLP and Alliance are pro-Remain. The UUP was split during the referendum but officially campaigned to Remain.

However, with Sinn Fein’s seven MPs not taking their seats at Westminster and the Stormont Assembly not sitting, the DUP’s 10 MPs have been the dominant voice for Northern Ireland, with independent Lady Sylvia Hermon the only other representative for the region in the House of Commons.

Brexit has brought the constitutional status of Northern Ireland back to the fore, with disagreement over the future of the Irish border having already sunk two proposed withdrawal deals.

Fears have been voiced over dissident republican violence in the event of a hard border, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s most recent proposal of an effective trade border down the Irish Sea sparked outrage among unionists and accusations of betrayal from loyalists.

Brexit
Loyalist Jamie Bryson branded Boris Johnson’s proposed withdrawal deal as the “betrayal act” (Niall Carson/PA)

Sinn Fein has already selected a number of candidates to contest the long-expected Westminster election, including Belfast Lord Mayor John Finucane to challenge DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds’ slim majority in North Belfast.

At its selection meeting last month, the party said it would be “open to an arrangement” between pro-Remain parties to oust DUP MPs.

Meanwhile, on the unionist side of the fence, incoming UUP leader Steve Aiken has attracted criticism by ruling out his party stepping aside in certain constituencies – including North Belfast – to allow DUP candidates a clear run.

Sinn Fein election candidate
John Finucane (centre) at a North Belfast Sinn Fein selection meeting last month where the party revealed its anti-Brexit strategy for the expected Westminster poll (Rebecca Black/PA)

Even with controversy about the now two-and-a-half-year-old collapse of devolved government, as seats in the region’s 18 constituencies fall vacant again, Brexit and its potential impact is likely to be the dominant issue on voters’ minds.

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