by Henry Hill
Friday, 6
May 2022
Explainer
08:30

Sinn Fein is on the verge of a historic breakthrough

Unionism has never looked in worse shape
by Henry Hill
Sinn Fein Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill. Credit: Getty

We won’t know until later today the results of the elections in Northern Ireland. But if they’re anything like the final polls, Brandon Lewis likely faces a busy few weeks just keeping Stormont on its feet.

The Democratic Unionists, who have been the dominant pro-UK party since the mid-noughties, seem to have failed to close the gap with Sinn Fein, meaning that for the first time the republicans will be the largest party in the Assembly.

In fact, the DUP seem to be locked in a desperate battle for second place with the Alliance Party, the Province’s middle-of-the-road liberal option.

Should these forecasts be borne out, it will be a seismic shock to ‘capital-U Unionism’, because for the first time they will not be nominating the ‘First Minister’.

In reality, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are co-equal positions. But the fiction implied by the current titles is symbolically important — which is why the Unionists insisted on it in the first place.

Getting overtaken by the Alliance would be a second major blow, for it would mean that not only would the largest party at Stormont be pro-unification with Ireland, but the second-largest would be officially neutral on the whole question.

The strange thing is, the Unionists will certainly be the second-largest group in the Assembly — and they may even be the largest one. But the pro-UK vote is split between three major parties, whereas the nationalist vote is only split between two.

Under the original terms of the Belfast Agreement, it was the largest group which nominated the First Minister. It was the DUP themselves who, in collusion with Sinn Fein, prevailed on New Labour to change the rules in 2007.

Now that right goes to the largest party. This had the effect of encouraging voters on both sides to cluster behind the biggest party on each side (not coincidentally, the DUP and Sinn Fein).

Since overtaking the Ulster Unionists and changing the rules, the DUP have profited greatly from this fact, focusing every election on rallying the pro-UK electorate behind them to keep Sinn Fein out.

But that has come at a great cost to unionism more widely, as smaller parties have been squeezed and voters, tiring of the DUP’s limited offer, have switched to the Alliance or stayed at home.

There may yet not be a new executive: Sir Jeffrey Donaldson led his party out of the last one, and the Protocol may provide sufficient pretext for his MLAs to refuse to serve under Sinn Fein’s (entirely titular) leadership.

For their part, the republicans probably won’t want to rock the boat too much so as not to spook voters in the Republic: the party’s long-term goal has always been to hold office on both sides of the border.

But whether they agree to serve or not, the dethroning of the DUP must lead to a long overdue reckoning for Northern Ireland’s unionist leaders. They have been failing their voters, and their cause, for far too long.

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Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 month ago

A good analysis. The old parties in Ireland, north and south, have lost much of their former strength and this looks like continuing.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
1 month ago

The DUP have bee playing the zero sum game for years, and now it’s back to bite them in the rear. Like the Stormont of old, everything was about sticking it to the other crowd, and never mind the actual business of running the state. I’m no fan of the Shinners, but the fact that even unionists now seem to be sick of this attitude is a positive. The irony is that it’s quite likely the DUP themselves shot their own foot off. They fought tooth and nail for Brixit (and with somewhat questionable tactics, remembering that infamous wraparound edition of the London Metro newspaper) on the assumption that if it happened, it would create a hard border between north and south on the island. How’s that one working out for you, guys?

John Murray
John Murray
1 month ago

Yeah, the possibility of the Alliance doing so well is certainly a big change. Back in the day the Alliance was basically for nice North Down ladies who found the Unionists uncouth (e.g. my mother), so pleasantly surprising to see they have grown.

Fragmentary Gadabout
Fragmentary Gadabout
1 month ago

I mean I was unaware of the DUP’s own goal regarding the largest party’s being able to nominate the First Minister until the author here mentioned it. I mean all predictions suggested that Unionist votes will have a demographic advantage until about 2030 so they seem to have made some basic miscalculations.
This along with rejecting Teresa May’s deal* when they could have accepted it suggests that these people are morons when it comes to political strategy, and I say that as a Unionist.

* Let’s ignore whether it was good or not and think from the perspective of the DUP’s interests. The fact is that it would have avoided the protocol even if the rest of the UK was in some kind of custom union and prevented the collapse in DUP votes.

Last edited 1 month ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
1 month ago

My view as an American is that Ireland has traditionally been a place people come from, not a place people stay in. If there’s instability in Northern Ireland, I think people will again just leave.

My Irish ancestors all were Protestants, mostly Presbyterians, that came to the American Colonies from Northern Ireland before the American Revolution. From what I have found out about them, and others like them, the Irish Penal laws were both the reason they left and the reason they fought English efforts at direct rule in the American Colonies.

The stories of most people of Irish descent I’ve know here in the US are also similar, in that things in Ireland got bad, so their families left. It seems there are more Irish in the US than in Ireland.

Politicians in Ireland have to be careful about their fights. If things get too bad in Northern Ireland and Eire, people will just leave for Canada or the US. By now, voting with your feet is a centuries old Irish tradition. You would think Irish politicians might consider emigration, but they don’t seem to.

Last edited 1 month ago by Douglas Proudfoot
Stephen Magee
Stephen Magee
1 month ago

The elephant in the room is education. To put it bluntly, many unionists are thick as champ. When access to education was liberalised in the mid-20th century, Norn Iron Catholics seized the opportunities it offered. The other side, by contrast, knew that they lived under a Protestant parliament created for a Protestant people, and that there would always be jobs for them in the (Protestant-owned) shipyards and mills. In short, what was the point of wasting yer time on education? You can see the results today: Sinn Fein (and the Catholic vote generally) is well-disciplined and carefully directed at achieving long-term goals. The knuckle-draggers on the other side are a shambolic mess, still mentally stuck in the mindset that, as long as they can parade up and down the street in their orange sashes, somehow the good old days of Harland & Wolff, Mackie’s and Gallaher’s will come back.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago

Oh please, please, please let it happen. Let SF slowly and sneakily con NI and Eire voters into a unity vote. Then con them into voting for it.
We can then sit back and watch……

Michael Webb
Michael Webb
1 month ago

Sooner or later Britain will be forced off Ireland. The sooner the better.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago
Reply to  Michael Webb

Forced? Britain’s political class has been desperate to let go of the bloody thing for decades.

Stephen Magee
Stephen Magee
1 month ago
Reply to  Michael Webb

The pieds noirs in Norn Iron beg to differ.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
1 month ago
Reply to  Michael Webb

There has been a past that this present generation has had no part in but lives with the consequences of dreadful ‘of their time’ actions. There are many shared islands, penisula, nations, continents – !world! – xenophobic bitter parties that find bickering over a piece of land preferable to a shared peace is why the Middle East, Yemen, Ukraine etc etc etc will continue to suffer as they do.