Questions and answers about
the economy.

What are the key election issues in Northern Ireland?

In Northern Ireland, 18 seats are being contested in the 2024 general election. Ever-present constitutional issues and heightened economic and social challenges are likely to feature prominently in voters’ minds.

On 4 July, voters in Northern Ireland will elect members of parliament (MPs) to represent the region’s 18 constituencies in the House of Commons.

With a choice of 136 candidates, the 18 MPs elected in Northern Ireland will typically represent local parties rather than the national Conservative or Labour parties. In the 2019 election, four local parties took all 18 seats. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had the highest number of MPs with eight, followed by Sinn Féin with seven, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) with two, and the Alliance Party with one.

What issues will voters be concerned about in 2024?

In Northern Ireland, constitutional issues feature prominently in any election debate. Although wider economic and social concerns are increasing, Brexit has reignited discussions about whether Northern Ireland is better remaining as part of the UK or whether it should be reunited with the Republic of Ireland.

The prolonged uncertainty around post-Brexit trading arrangements and the resulting creation of a UK internal trade border – or the Irish sea border, as it’s usually called – continue to be contentious. This is a particular issue for unionist parties.

The UK’s weak economic performance post-Brexit has brought the constitutional issue further into focus. This is particularly noticeable against the backdrop of higher living standards in the Republic than in Northern Ireland (Bergin and McGuinness, 2021).

As this is the first general election since the UK formally left the European Union (EU) in 2020 – and with the main Northern Irish political parties split largely along constitutional lines – voters may signal their intent in the wider constitutional debate on 4 July.

Perhaps more so than in previous elections, economic issues will also be high on voters’ agenda due to the continuing pressure of the cost of living crisis.

Recent high inflation and interest rates have continued to squeeze households. Indeed, those in Northern Ireland have the lowest spending power of the UK regions.

Income after tax for the lowest-earning households in Northern Ireland is around 6% lower than equivalent households in the UK. With these households spending a higher share of their income on food and energy (examples of items that have had the largest inflationary increases), it’s no surprise that they are reported to be among those faring worst in the current crisis.

Public services are also under strain. As a result, the NHS and childcare, in particular, are likely to top the list of voters’ concerns.

The recently agreed Northern Irish budget saw a shortfall in funding against needs across all departments. Although health received the largest share of day-to-day funding, it was still seen to be insufficient to tackle current problems by the health minister.

Indeed, waiting lists in Northern Ireland are now 1.4 times higher than at the start of the pandemic and almost five times higher than in June 2008. With levels of economic inactivity already high in Northern Ireland – particularly among the sick and disabled – tackling health problems will undoubtedly be a concern for voters as well as the political parties.

Childcare is an issue that has also received mounting attention. This is due to increasing costs and concerns around affordability, but also to a divergence in policy between Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK.

A recent childcare review in Northern Ireland found affordability to be an issue across the income distribution with 62% of those on a very low income and almost half of those on a high income describing formal childcare as being unaffordable (Department of Education, 2024).

Parents have also highlighted the differences in support for childcare across the UK. At the last spring budget, the UK chancellor announced that the existing entitlement of 30 hours of free childcare per week for working parents in England would be extended to include children aged nine months and over.

With no equivalent policy in Northern Ireland, affordability and accessibility have become key issues. They also act as a barrier to employment, particularly for women. A recent ministerial announcement of an extension to 22.5 hours of free pre-school childcare provision may go some way to addressing the issues, but they are still likely to remain a top voting concern for parents.

Although these and other social issues will feature on the agenda for the recently re-established Northern Ireland Executive, budgetary pressures and reduced fiscal powers will limit the scope for action. Representation of the Northern Ireland voice at Westminster will therefore continue to be of importance to call for fiscal reform, to help to address local needs and to deliver the transformation of the region’s economy that is required.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Esmond Birnie, Ulster University
  • Lisa Wilson, Nevin Economic Research Institute
  • Seamus McGuinness, The Economic and Social Research Institute
Author: Karen Bonner
Image: Aerial photo of Belfast City Skyline Cityscape Northern Ireland. Credit: Ballygally View Images on iStock
Recent Questions
View all articles
Do you have a question surrounding any of these topics? Or are you an economist and have an answer?
Ask a Question
Submit Evidence