The Irish Times view on the UK general election and Northern Ireland: the chance of a fresh start

A victory for the Labour Party would give the opportunity to rebuild relationships between Belfast and London after a difficult period

The UK general election scheduled for July 4th is a welcome opportunity to hit the reset button between political parties in Northern Ireland and Westminster.

Since the Brexit vote on June 23rd, 2016, relations between the Conservative government and the North’s main parties have been strained, for a variety of reasons.

The Tories played a cynical game with Northern Ireland during Brexit negotiations. Boris Johnson, the former prime minister, gave a pledge to unionists that he would never accept a border between Britain and Northern Ireland, before he signed a deal in October 2019 to put customs and regulatory checks down the Irish Sea.

Overall, Brexit has been a source of significant instability, which is underlined by the fact that the Stormont government was shuttered for a total of five years on two separate occasions since the 2016 vote.

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The Conservative Party has carried its lack of consideration for Northern Ireland onto the campaign trail. It has said that its idea of introducing mandatory national service for 18-year olds will include Northern Ireland. Suggesting that people from a nationalist background sign up for the British army shows an astonishing lack of sensitivity.

According to all credible polls, the Labour Party will win a thumping majority on July 4th. Hilary Benn, who is the shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland, has shown a willingness to engage with both communities, and the growing non-aligned middle ground. Labour would not reverse the Brexit vote, but it would take a much more constructive approach to relations with the EU. That would be a positive development for the outworking of the Windsor Framework, which gives Northern Ireland access to the UK internal market and the EU’s single market for goods.

It is going to be a difficult election for the DUP amid the ongoing legal woes of Jeffrey Donaldson, the former party leader, who is facing allegations of historical sex abuse. Underlining this, the news that Alliance party leader Naomi Long will contest the Belfast East constituency poses a significant challenge for Gavin Robinson, the interim leader of the DUP, to retain his seat.

The splintered unionist vote means Sinn Féin appears poised to return the highest number of MPs in the July election. This would make Sinn Féin the biggest party at local council, in the Stormont Assembly and Westminster – a remarkable milestone. There are no indications that Sinn Féin will reverse its policy of abstentionism. Nevertheless, it would need to develop a good working relationship with Labour. The same applies to the DUP and the North’s other political parties.

Political stasis in recent years has taken its toll on public services. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better. A Labour government presents the opportunity for a fresh start.