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Northern Ireland elections are sending Unionists into panic

This article is over 1 years, 7 months old
Sinn Fein could cause shockwaves and become the largest party in Stormont for the first time. But the Unionists aren’t giving up without a fight, says Simon Basketter
Issue 2801
Stormont—Northern Irish Assembly

Trouble is brewing in Stormont—the Assembly of Northern Ireland

There will be elections to Northern Ireland’s Stormont assembly on 5 May. Sinn Fein looks set to come in as the largest party, winning the first minister’s role. Up to now this has always been held by a Unionist. The Democratic Unionist party (DUP), currently the largest Unionist party, says this is “a problem”.

For them, that’s putting it very lightly. Arrangements at Stormont are founded on a mandatory power sharing coalition, meaning the first and deputy first ministers are ­supposed to be joint and equal. But the DUP is acting otherwise.

The ongoing and persistent nature of the crisis at Stormont is rooted in its creation. The Good Friday peace settlement is not designed to resolve issues, but to manage them. However, as always, Britain made things worse. The Northern Ireland Protocol was a last-minute compromise to get Brexit through.

It effectively created a trade border down the Irish Sea. But it allows free trade between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. This is an ideological threat to Unionism and one they are unable to deal with. Unionists are pulled between a determination to whip up sectarianism to hold onto their shaky political base and the need to control the union.

Panic has set in. And it is no coincidence that an organisation founded on religious bigotry moves right when in trouble. The DUP was disappointed by the lack of reaction when it crashed the executive at Stormont earlier this year. The Tories, bluster aside, are going to keep checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea. And so Jeffrey Donaldson MP, the DUP leader, has trundled round the North with his Orange Order sash to make sure people know he is loyal to the union. But some are not convinced. Other unionist voices claim the DUP has sold out.

The Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister claims Northern Ireland has been colonised by the EU and is set to be taken over by the Republic of Ireland. Some gunmen forced a man to drive a hoax bomb to a venue that a visiting Southern Irish government minister was speaking at last month.

It was meant as a threat not just to Southern politicians. If Sinn Fein does arrive as the ­biggest party—as Unionism further fragments—it will be met with a fair amount of shock and horror from the right wing press. But the most likely scenario is for a lengthy period of stalemate and stagnation.

Sinn Fein is a long way down its path of respectability both in the North and South and is putting a lot of effort into showing it is fit to run Irish capitalism. On the campaign trail both Sinn Fein and the DUP are ­complaining about the cost of living crisis. Meanwhile both are happily ignoring the fact that they were running the executive which saw it arrive. As an alternative to the sectarian headcount the People Before Profit alliance is standing six candidates in the elections.

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