On 31st January at 23:00, Northern Ireland and the UK will unfortunately be leaving the European Union. One important aspect of the UK’s membership of the EU has been Northern Ireland’s three Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), who have been elected every five years from 1979. This consistency of elections has resulted in some interesting results, especially as Northern Ireland is a single constituency for European elections, with the election conducted by Single Transferable Vote (STV) as is used for local and Assembly elections.
Nine people have represented Northern Ireland in the European Parliament over the last forty years:
- John Taylor (UUP): 1979-1989
- Ian Paisley (DUP): 1979-2004
- John Hume (SDLP): 1979-2004
- Jim Nicholson (UUP): 1989-2019
- Jim Allister (DUP/TUV): 2004-2009
- Bairbre de Brún (Sinn Féin): 2004-2012
- Diane Dodds (DUP): 2009-2020
- Martina Anderson (Sinn Féin): 2012-2020
- Naomi Long (Alliance): 2019-2020
Five of the nine MEPs were also elected to the House of Commons: Paisley was North Antrim MP 1970-2010, Taylor was Strangford MP 1983-2001, Hume was Foyle MP 1983-2005, Nicholson was Newry and Armagh MP 1983-1986 and Long was East Belfast MP 2010-2015. Paisley and Taylor were also appointed of the House of Lords, as Lord Bannside and Lord Kilclooney respectively. Paisley, Hume and Taylor were elected to the old Northern Ireland Parliament before its abolition in 1972, all three were also elected to the 1982 Assembly alongside Nicholson. Eight out of nine MEPs have also served in the Northern Ireland Assembly since 1998, apart from Nicholson.
In the European Parliament, most MEPs sit as part of a political group based on their ideological beliefs, and most of Northern Ireland MEPs have joined one of those groups. The three DUP MEPs never joined a group, and they sit as non-attached members. The UUP generally followed the Conservatives, for example both initially sat with the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), but in 2009 both parties helped to established the more Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). However, in the 1980s John Taylor joined the far-right Group of the European Right, chaired by National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Sinn Féin sits with the European United Left-Nordic Green Left, which includes a number of socialist and communist parties, mostly Eurosceptic. The SDLP sat with the Party of European Socialists, which also includes the British and Irish Labour parties. And Alliance is a member of Renew Europe (formerly the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) as is the Liberal Democrats.
Every European election in Northern Ireland from 1979 to 1999 resulted in the election of 1 DUP, 1 SDLP and 1 UUP MEP. From 2004 to 2014 the result was 1 DUP, 1 Sinn Féin and 1 UUP. And in the most recent election in 2019, 1 DUP, 1 Sinn Féin and 1 Alliance MEPs were elected.
The DUP is the only party which consistently returned an MEP across every election from 1979 to 2019. However, they did not have consistent representation in the European Parliament during this time, because Jim Allister resigned from the DUP in 2007 and sat instead for the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) until losing his seat to Diane Dodds in 2009. Ian Paisley contested the five elections from 1979 to 1999, topping the poll each time and elected over the quota. His 230,251 votes in 1984 (33.60%) remains the highest vote ever received by a candidate in Northern Ireland. Jim Allister achieved the second highest percentage vote when he succeeded Paisley in 2004 (32.00%), but his decision to leave the DUP had a significant impact on their 2009 vote. Diane Dodds started in second place with 18.23%, but TUV transfers brought the UUP ahead and Dodds therefore was elected to the third and final seat just over 18,294 votes ahead of the SDLP. Her vote increased in 2014 and this time Dodds won the second seat, while in 2019 Dodds started in second place behind Sinn Féin, but she won the first seat after the elimination of the UUP.
The UUP held a seat in the European Parliament from 1979 until 2019. In the 1979 election they ran two candidates, John Taylor and Harry West; Taylor started 11,201 votes ahead and won the third seat while West finished in fifth behind independent unionist James Kilfedder. Taylor took the second seat in 1984 on DUP transfers, but he did not run in 1989. Instead Jim Nicholson was elected, taking the third seat in 1989, 1994, 1999 and 2004. 2009 was the only time in which the UUP was elected ahead of the DUP, Nicholson received more TUV transfers than the DUP, ultimately taking the second seat. In 2014 Nicholson started just 1,844 votes ahead of the SDLP, and later in the count Alliance transfers brought the SDLP ahead. But TUV and DUP transfers ensured that Nicholson won the last seat by 42,938.38 votes. Nicholson did not contest the 2019 election, instead former MLA and Minister Danny Kennedy was their candidate. This election was devastating for the UUP, Kennedy started in sixth place and was eliminated on the second round, their seat went to Alliance.
The SDLP had a seat in the European Parliament from 1979 to 2004. John Hume won the second seat in every election from 1979 to 1999, apart from 1984 when he finished third. His strongest result was 28.93% in 1994, followed by 28.10% in 1999. But when Hume retired in 2004, the SDLP’s European seat went to Sinn Féin, Martin Morgan received 15.94% of the vote, nearly half of Hume’s 1999 vote. Alban Maginness and Alex Attwood both came relatively close to taking back an SDLP seat from the UUP in 2009 and 2014 respectively, and in 2019 the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood ran a strong campaign focused on returning a second pro-remain MEP for Northern Ireland, however it was a disappointing result for them as he started in fourth place behind Alliance, and UUP and DUP transfers unexpectedly brought the TUV ahead of Eastwood and he was eliminated on the penultimate round, with SDLP transfers electing Alliance and Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin did not contest the 1979 election, as they did not get involved with electoral politics in Northern Ireland until after the 1981 hunger strikes. Danny Morrison represented the party in 1984 and 1989, finishing fourth in both elections, while in 1994 there were three Sinn Féin candidates who finished fifth, sixth and seventh behind Alliance. In 1999 Mitchel McLaughlin started just 1,864 votes behind the UUP, but the UUP margin of victory after transfers was a more decisive lead of 65,404.66 votes. It was in 2004 that Sinn Féin finally won a European seat in Northern Ireland, Bairbre de Brún added nearly 10% to their 1999 vote to take a seat from the SDLP. De Brún was the second candidate elected after the DUP in 2004, but in 2009 she topped the poll. Martina Anderson succeeded de Brún in 2012, and she was elected over quota in 2014, however in 2019 a 3% decrease in the Sinn Féin vote meant that Anderson had to wait until the end to be elected. Although Anderson did top the poll in 2019, she finished in third place behind the DUP and Alliance on transfers.
Alliance contested all of the European elections apart from 2004, on that occasion they supported the independent candidate John Gilliland, a former President of the Ulster Farmers Union who also had the support of Labour, Conservatives and the Workers’ Party. Then leader Oliver Napier ran in 1979 and started in fifth place with 6.82%, subsequent elections saw a small decline for David Cook in 1984, a slight increase for leader John Alderdice in 1994 and a small decrease for Mary Clark-Glass in 1994. 1999 was Alliance’s lowest result for new leader Seán Neeson, and as mentioned there was no Alliance candidate in 2004. Ian Parsley had a good result in 2009, receiving 5.51%, and in 2014 Anna Lo achieved what was then Alliance’s best European result with 7.10%. But it was in 2019 that Alliance achieved a historic breakthrough, current leader Naomi Long started in third place with 105,928 votes (18.50%) and after transfers finished second ahead of Sinn Féin with 170,370 votes. This is Alliance’s best ever percentage vote, and for a while was their largest number of votes ever, until the December 2019 general election in which Alliance received 134,115 votes. As a consequence of Long’s election to the European Parliament, Alliance will have been represented in the European Parliament for 250 days (27th May until 31st January), and following the election of Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry to the House of Commons on 13th December, there were 50 days in which Alliance was simultaneously represented across the four levels of government, local councils, the Assembly, UK Parliament and the European Parliament.
There are a number of other interesting facts relating to European elections in Northern Ireland. 1994 had the largest number of candidates at 17, this included 3 from Sinn Féin and a number of independents, and also 3 from the Natural Law Party, which contented most constituencies in the 1998 Assembly election and finished in last place in most of them. 1979 was the second most competitive with 13, this included prominent independents such as James Kilfedder, then MP for North Down and later leader of the Ulster Popular Unionist Party (he was the runner up in this election), Bernadette McAliskey, the former MP for Mid Ulster and one of the youngest MPs ever, and David Bleakley, a long-standing representative of the old Labour party, who was elected in East Belfast in the 1973 and 1975 Assembly elections. The least competitive elections were 2004 and 2009, with seven candidates each. In addition to the DUP, Sinn Féin, UUP and SDLP, the remaining three candidates in 2004 were from the Greens, Socialist Environmental (Eamonn McCann) and the independent candidate John Gilliland, who as mentioned earlier had the support of Alliance and other parties. While in 2009, Alliance, Greens and TUV were the other three parties.
One notable aspects in Northern Ireland’s nine European elections is the differing turnouts:
1984 is clearly the election with the highest turnout, at 65.42%. This was the election in which Ian Paisley achieved the largest ever vote for a Northern Ireland election candidate (230,251), a record which will probably never be surpassed as there are no other elections in which Northern Ireland is a single constituency apart from European ones. It was also the only election in which the first and second seats went to unionists, normally from 1979 to 1999 Ian Paisley was elected first, John Hume second and the UUP candidate third. In 1984 Paisley took the first seat and John Taylor took the second, with Hume elected third but still decisively.
In contrast, the lowest turnout in 2009 (42.81%) was the election in which the DUP finished third for the only time, they took the first seat in every European election up to 2004, the second seat in 2014 and the first in 2019. Surprisingly, the most recent election in 2019 had the second lowest turnout (45.14%), despite the significance of Brexit and the importance of electing a pro- or anti-Brexit majority depending on individual political views. Arguably European elections before 2014 were predictable in that two unionists and one nationalist were certain, but the added element of Brexit and the surge in support for cross-community and anti-sectarian parties (as highlighted in the 2019 local election three weeks before) contributed to the election of the first Alliance MEP in May 2019.
European elections provide a unique insight into Northern Ireland politics. They gave an opportunity for politicians and political parties to test their popularity across the entire country, as opposed to local, Assembly and Westminster elections where local factors and individual personalities are also very important. Northern Ireland was originally given three MEPs rather then two because of the intention to see both unionists and nationalists elected. This created an extremely predictable series of results, two unionists and one nationalist from 1999 to 2014, with the DUP and UUP consistently winning a seat and the only change being Sinn Féin’s gain from the SDLP in 2004. But the 2019 election result gave us one of the most significant elections in the recent history of Northern Ireland, with Alliance gaining a seat from the UUP, making our European representation one unionist, one nationalist and one cross-community. Future European elections would have been fascinating, with Alliance the favourite to defend their seat but facing a potential challenge from the SDLP, UUP or even TUV. But because of the disaster that is Brexit, 2019 will be the last European election for Northern Ireland, at least in the short term.