It has been said that when Prime Minister Theresa May called for an election on 8 June she did so as a Conservative but not as a unionist. The argument goes that the snap poll will be a boon to nationalists, exasperating tensions in Northern Ireland and Scotland respectively, possibly leading to louder demands for polls on Irish unity and Scottish independence.

The Scottish National Party will make their case should they gain seats or nudge past 50% of the vote. Here, Sinn Féin will welcome the opportunity to potentially overtake the DUP for the first time, having come with 1,200 vote of doing so at last month’s Assembly election.

At first glance this election is fraught with risks for unionist, but it also has potential for gains.

Let’s look closer look at the situations in Scotland and Northern Ireland

 

Scotland

In Scotland we see a country that is wary of a second independence vote and where the Scottish Conservatives have been making considerable inroads.

The party went from 14 seats in the Scottish Parliament in 2012 to 31 in 2016, whilst the Liberal Democrats also gained constituency seats in Fife and Edinburgh.

A general election may well give these parties an opportunity to build on these successes.

This is coupled with the reality that the SNP will be hard pressed to do better than they did in the 2015 last general election in 2015. Back then they won 56 out of 59 seats, with 49.97% of the vote. To claim a mandate for a second independence referendum they would likely need to either equal or improve upon that result.

They will undoubtedly target Orkney and Shetland, the one remaining Liberal Democrat seat in Scotland, and hope to unseat the sole Conservative MP in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale. However, in 2017 it’s hard to see them gaining seats they failed to win in the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile they will have a fight on their hands to defend numerous seats including Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, Dumfries and Galloway, Edinburgh West, Fife North East and East Dunbartonshire.

So, it’s clear that this will be a difficult election for the SNP. Whilst the election campaign will be bitterly fought and may in many respects feel like a referendum of sorts, it looks likely to result in gains for unionist parties.

Should this happen, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon would find it much more difficult to continue arguing for a second independence referendum. Indeed, Theresa May would appear vindicated in having refused one earlier this year.

 

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, the situation is also more complicated than it first appears. With nationalist parties having done well in March it seems unlikely that the disparity in turnout between unionist and nationalist areas will be repeated this time.

The DUP look safe in most of their constituencies with the notable exceptions of Belfast North and Belfast East. A unionist pact would be expected to cover these seats, and possibly also South Antrim where the DUP have no obvious candidate to take on incumbent UUP MP Danny Kinahan.

The real battlegrounds would be Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast – seats currently held by the UUP and SDLP respectively. Higher unionist turnout and an election pact in these constituencies could see unionism keep the former and gain the latter, giving unionists 12 seats out of 18 for the first time since 2001.

Such an outcome would certainly strengthen the hand of unionists at Westminster. Could this even change the dynamic of the ongoing talks at Stormont castle?

In terms of vote share, nothing would stop Sinn Féin’s momentum more effectively than an election to a parliament in which they don’t sit. The SDLP can at least point to their performance in the House of Commons. It’s hard to see how Sinn Fein can argue that taking those voices away will make Northern Ireland’s voice heard. A dip in their vote-share now would also encourage unionists.

Ultimately then, it appears that this election could be a real opportunity for unionists across Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The result could see nationalism weakened and the union safeguarded in a way that seemed unlikely just a weeks ago.

Of course a lot could still happen in the coming weeks and the results are by no means certain, but could Theresa May end up being the Prime Minister who saved the Union?

  • Patrick Davidson

    Interesting slant but misses the point in Scotland and is one dimensional in Northern Ireland. The Scottish parliament has already voted in favour of indyref2 and parliaments rarely like their votes to be dismissed as May has done. Expect the SNP to get more than 50 % of the NIpopular vote as they through everything at this election. Expect the policies of May and Davidson to be exposed as never before.

    In NI any gains got Unionists as a result of a pact will be short lived and self delusional as the demographic changes and post Brexit austerity bite. Yes there will be crowing and breast beating from the usual sources but the game is up and the first scheduled Assembly election to take place under the new constituency boundaries will deliver more nationalists/republicans than Unionists resulting in a border poll. The Union has never been in more danger as people in Scotland and NI look ahead at years of Tory cuts and austerity for the have nots and tax cuts for the rich. This appalling vista brings independence in Scotland and a new agreed Ireland into sharp focus.

  • OneNI

    Its a real mistake to think that even if united unionist candidates won a dozen seats in NI this would in any way strengthen the Union. The very existence of 6 county regionalist parties who wrap themselves in a flag and call themselves unionist is the greatest threat to the Union. NI Unionism is an Oxymoron
    Contrast with Scotland. After the last GE in 2015 when the SNP won 56 of the 59 seats was there a clammer for Lab, Con and Lib Dem to unite? No they didnt dance to the Nationalists tune they persisted with the politics of the Union. Even Labour despite their massive fall from grace.
    Now the Conservatives are posed to deliver a rebuff to the SNP.
    The UUP and DUP with their pathetic concern about the tiny fraction of the population who give and mokeys about the Ardoyne parade or Drumcree have given Unionism a bad name. The antics of the DUP from homophobia and general insularity have done more to weaken the bounds between the people of GB and NI than 40 years of terrorism