Northern Ireland - Westminster Elections Explained
A look at some of the main political parties and issues in Northern Ireland
Every few years, the people of Northern Ireland are asked in a General Election to choose 18 Members of Parliament (MPs) to represent them in the British House of Commons, also known as Westminster. The most recent General Election took place on the 12th of December 2019.
Background: Northern Ireland, unionism and nationalism
Northern Ireland is the six counties on the island of Ireland that are still part of the United Kingdom (UK), which also includes England, Wales and Scotland. The rest of Ireland left the UK in 1922 to form an independent country. Ever since then, Northern Irish politics has mostly been split between two political movements: unionism and nationalism.
Unionism is the belief that Northern Ireland should remain within the UK. Nationalism or republicanism is the belief that Northern Ireland should leave the UK and instead join the Republic of Ireland. There are also parties in Northern Ireland that are neither unionist nor nationalist, such as the Alliance.
British political parties do not run in Northern Ireland. Instead, the North has its own political parties. If the overall result of the election is close, Northern Irish parties can end up having a key role in deciding the next government of the UK. This is what happened after the 2017 UK General Election when the Democratic Unionist Party supported the Conservative Party to stay in power.
The six counties that make up Northern Ireland are Antrim, Armagh, Down, Derry (sometimes called Londonderry), Fermanagh and Tyrone.
Brexit and the border: major issues for Northern Ireland
The most recent General Election took place as Britain was trying to leave the European Union (EU), a process known as ‘Brexit’. The UK's Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, won the election after agreeing a deal with the rest of the EU that would see the UK leave in early 2020.
One important factor in Brexit is how it affects the border between the two parts of Ireland. After thirty years of fighting, known as the Troubles, peace came to Northern Ireland with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. This agreement guaranteed a joint say for unionists and nationalists in the future of the North, and made sure there would be an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This meant that Irish people could move freely between the two parts of the island, rather than being cut off from one another as they were during the Troubles.
After the UK voted for Brexit, many feared that Northern Ireland leaving the EU would mean the border could no longer remain open. To prevent this, the British government made a deal with the EU to keep the border open, by agreeing that Northern Ireland would keep following most EU rules even after the rest of the UK was no longer doing so.
The current Brexit deal is supported by the British and Irish governments, but is not supported by most of the political parties in Northern Ireland. Unionist parties, particularly the Democratic Unionist Party, are against the current Brexit plans because they want Northern Ireland to have the same rules as the rest of the UK. Nationalists and other parties are against it because they want to remain in the EU.
Who are the main political parties in Northern Ireland?
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)
The current largest political party in Northern Ireland is the Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP. The DUP is strongly in favour of Northern Ireland staying within the United Kingdom. They are also socially conservative, meaning they are against marriage equality and legal abortion in Northern Ireland. They want to leave the European Union, but do not support Prime Minister Johnson’s Brexit deal and feel it is a betrayal of their support for the Conservative government from 2017 to 2019.
The DUP hold 8 of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats in Westminster. You can read more about their policies here.
Sinn Féin is the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, and the second largest party overall after the DUP. Sinn Féin supports Northern Ireland leaving the United Kingdom and joining with the Republic, and had a strong association with the Irish Republican Army (IRA). They are against Brexit and support politics such as marriage equality and equal rights for Irish-language speakers.
Sinn Féin are an ‘abstentionist’ party. This means that, when Sinn Féin candidates win seats in House of Commons, they refuse to attend in protest at Britain’s role in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin now hold 7 of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats in Westminster. You can read more about their policies here.
Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)
The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) is the second-largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland. The party has a history of wanting a peaceful end to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The SDLP are against Brexit and, unlike Sinn Féin, do sit in the House of Commons when elected.
The SDLP currently hold 2 of Northern Ireland's 18 seats in Westminster. You can read more about their policies here.
Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)
The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) is the second-largest unionist party in Northern Ireland. They were the largest and most powerful party for most of Northern Ireland’s existence, but in recent years have lost much of their support to the DUP. They had a key role in the Good Friday Agreement and, like the DUP, support Brexit but not the current Brexit deal.
The UUP currently hold no seats in Westminster. You can read more about their policies here.
The Alliance Party
The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland is the largest party that is neither unionist nor nationalist. They support policies such as LGBTI+ rights and reducing the divide between the unionist and nationalist communities. They are strongly in favour of remaining in the EU.
The Alliance hold 1 of Northern Ireland's 18 seats in Westminster. You can read more about their policies here.
There are many other political parties in Northern Ireland. These include the Green Party, who want more action on the climate crisis; People Before Profit, who campaign against capitalism and for a more equal society; and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), who are strongly in favour of Northern Ireland staying in the UK.
Like in the Republic, there are also independent politicians who are not part of any political party. Sylvia Hermon was an Independent Unionist MP for Northern Ireland from 2010-2019, but chose to retire at the most recent General Election.
Who can vote in General Elections in Northern Ireland?
Any person with British or Irish citizenship who lives in Northern Ireland can vote in Northern Irish General Elections. You must be over 18 and registered to vote in the UK. Citizens of certain Commonwealth countries (such as Australia, Canada and Nigeria) can also vote when living in Northern Ireland.
In UK General Elections, voters can only choose one candidate to support. To vote, you put an X next to the name of the candidate you want to win, and leave it at that. Unlike in other elections in Ireland and Northern Ireland, you do not rank the candidates. If you do, your vote will not be counted.