By Simon Basketter
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Unionism in turmoil as Sinn Fein tops poll for Assembly 

This article is over 1 years, 7 months old
For the first time ever, Sinn Fein has won the most seats in Northern Ireland
Issue 2084
Michelle O'Neill

Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill. (Sinn Fein)

Sinn Fein is the biggest party in Northern Ireland after last week’s Assembly elections. In a statelet specifically set up by Britain to stop nationalists having a majority, the nationalist party got the most votes and the most seats.

Sinn Fein gained the highest number of first preference votes with 29 percent and won 27 seats. The party leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, claimed this was an “election of a generation”. She stands poised to be the first minister, providing a government can be formed.

In becoming the first ­nationalist leader of Northern Ireland, she would displace the representative of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Because the largest nationalist party and the largest Unionist party are guaranteed essentially equal governing powers in Northern Ireland, the distribution of first and second places makes little real difference. 

Nevertheless, symbols matter a lot in Northern Irish politics. And there is a very real collapse and fragmentation of Unionism that has dominated the state since its foundation.

The DUP’s vote share dropped 6.7 percent from 2017 to 21.3 percent. After years of dire catastrophising about evil, the DUP is reaping what it has sown. The party’s difficulties are reflected by its own internal disarray—it is now on its third leader since this time last year.

Many of the DUP’s votes were lost to Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionists Voice (TUV)This hard-line Unionist party increased its share of the vote by 5.1 percent to reach a total of 7.6 percent. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson let the TUV dictate the ground on which he fought the election. 

Donaldson lurched further right than his normal bigotry and tried to make the Northern Ireland protocol the central issue. He failed. The DUP lost votes to TUV to its right and to the Alliance Party from supporters who didn’t like where the party was heading. North Antrim, the home of the party and to generations of the Paisley family saw only one DUP member returned out of five seats.

The TUV leader may yet be a Nigel Farage like figure. He has not translated his vote into seats, and his moment has probably passed. He will stay around to scare the DUP, but not progress.

The former kingpins of Unionism and nationalism, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, each had a nightmarish election. Both look like spent forces. And the SDLP didn’t get enough votes to get a ministry in the compulsory power sharing carve-up.

The cost of living crisis and the health system chaos resonated with voters, for all the noise about the protocol. One poll showed three times as many DUP voters placed health issues at the top of their political agenda as those who said Brexit and the protocol were the key election concerns.

Gerry Carroll, the People Before Profit MLA who was re-elected (see below) pointed out the big parties simply didn’t talk about the cost of living crisis at the beginning of the election campaign. But some tacked back quicker than others to the ground the voters were on. 

Sinn Fein and the DUP did complain about the cost of living crisis by the end. Both happily ignored the fact that they were running the executive that saw it arrive. The rules of the Good Friday Agreement mean a nine month stalemate is now possible.

The Democratic Unionist Party refuses to return to Stormont 

The Democratic Unionist Party has said it won’t return to government while the Northern Ireland protocol is in place.

The ongoing and persistent nature of the crisis at Stormont is rooted in its creation. The Good Friday peace settlement was not designed to resolve issues, but to manage them. However, Britain makes 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.

The protocol is an ideological threat to Unionism and one it is 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. They did badly at all of those at the polls.

The Tories are now threatening to take unilateral action to override parts of the Northern Ireland Brexit deal “within weeks.” They claim this is crucial to restore power-sharing in the province.

There was language in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday about protecting the Good Friday Agreement in its “entirety”. This is an uncoded message that the government wants to retain the option to take “further steps” if no agreement is reached on amending the protocol.

It is essentially threatening to do something but whether it’s a bluff is unclear. The Tories have hinted they might drop the protocol, but it is a hard call for them. It would put them into serious conflict with the EU, who repeatedly said no to changing it. And to some extent it would be a clash with the US in a period when Johnson basks in his unity in dumping arms with the US on Ukraine.

The DUP needs a face-saving minimum of checking goods passing through Northern Ireland to the Republic, enabling them to say it has “removed the sea border”. With the help of spin and semantics, that’s probably achievable—eventually.

Sinn Fein had victories, but it doesn’t mean Irish unity

Sinn Fein is a long way down its path to respectability both in the North and South. It is putting a lot of effort into showing it is fit to run Irish capitalism. But Northern Ireland is not hurtling towards imminent reunification with the Republic. 

The Good Friday Agreement calls for a border poll only if it appears likely that a majority of voters within Northern Ireland would back reunification with Ireland. That is still unclear.

While it is an all-island organisation led from Dublin, Sinn Fein’s image—if not the reality—is distinct north and south of the border.

In the Republic, it presents itself as a left wing party. And it sits with the left, including Jean-Luc Melenchon’s La France Insoumise in the European Parliament. In the North it is a party of government under the Good Friday Agreement’s power-sharing arrangement. 

In over 20 years in office it has shown no radicalism—if anything the opposite—and is unlikely to start now. Sinn Fein downplayed reunification of Ireland during the election campaign. And the prospect of a border poll is still some distance off.

Revolutionary win in west Belfast 

People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll held onto his seat in Belfast West. The party saw its vote halved from the 2017 election, when it ran two candidates for the seat. 

Across the election its votes were down a little, as the DUP versus Sinn Fein battle dominated the vote. Gerry Carroll’s 3,279 first preference votes were enough to get elected after transfers. “Smaller parties have been squeezed across the board,” Gerry said.

“In that context for us to get re-elected in West Belfast, in an area where Sinn Fein’s vote surged, I think is a tremendous achievement for ourselves, our activists and for everybody who voted for us.

“Having a socialist voice in Stormont is going to be incredibly important to try and give some left wing direction to the discontent that is being expressed.”

Alliance gains from Unionists

The Alliance party has gained from the crisis in Unionism. It took seats from the Unionists and the Greens and now has 17 seats.

It is an international sister organisation of the Liberal Democrats—which in itself isn’t a compliment. Alliance members align themselves as “other” in the sectarian division of the Northern Ireland parliament. But they were formed as a liberal version of Unionism and hold onto those roots. 

They talk about resolving Northern Ireland’s issues without being sectarian. But they hold that they are Northern Ireland issues rather than Ireland’s.

Alliance politician Naomi Long was the justice minister in the last Stormont administration. She oversaw and defended police brutality against Black Lives Matter protesters.

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