(CN) — Nationalist Sinn Féin have scored a historic and consequential election victory in Northern Ireland's Assembly elections, with the pro-Irish unification party set to become the largest grouping in the territory for the first time.
Sinn Féin secured 29% of first preference votes, up on their previous outing, and outpolling the rival pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, for the first time since 1998’s Good Friday peace treaty ended conflict in Northern Ireland.
Speaking after her re-election announcement, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neil said: “We fought a very positive election campaign and the public have responded to that.”
“We spoke to the future, we spoke to everybody in society. I think the electorate responded to parties that want to work together,” she added.
Sinn Féin seek to bring about a so-called ‘border poll’ — a referendum on Irish unity — which is highly contentious in the polarized territory. But it is notable that party chose to focus their strong message discipline on other issues during the election campaign, such as healthcare provision and the cost of living crisis engulfing the United Kingdom.
Sinn Féin’s victory comes just two years after they won the most votes in the 2020 Irish general election, further cementing the rising fortunes of the socialist party, whose past association with the Provisional Irish Republican Army guerrilla group during The Troubles has long been perceived as an electoral obstacle. During the Irish election, Sinn Féin similarly focused on economic inequality and the housing crisis, attracting a large swath of the youth vote in the process.
The election result is equally significant for the collapse in support of the hardline Democratic Unionist Party, unionism’s major political force, who may now be forced to play second fiddle to Sinn Féin if they choose to engage in power sharing arrangements. The DUP’s first preference votes fell to just 21%, with the party hemorrhaging support across the board after a tumultuous few years dominated by leadership spats and strategic U-turns.
Speaking to the News Letter, the DUP’s Paul Givan rejected the suggestion that he would be the last unionist First Minster of Northern Ireland. Instead he pointed the finger of blame at partisan unionist squabbles, saying “This division of unionism is actually damaging the overall movement. Lessons need to be learned. There’s obviously policy issues every individual may differ on, but there is one single unifying commonality amongst us all — our desire for Northern Ireland to have its place within the U.K.”
The other major success story of the election came from non-aligned centrist liberal party Alliance, whose vote share rose from 9.1% in the previous election, to 14%. The success of Alliance is seen by some as indicative of a decline in sectarian attitudes in recent years, particularly amongst the unionist community. Their polling rise is also likely fueled by an increase in tactical voting on both sides.
The significance of the result is hard to understate. Since Ireland was partitioned in 1921, unionists have always been the dominant political force in Northern Ireland — a state cut out of the Irish province of Ulster by the British government in order to create a permanent unionist majority.
The political power exerted by Protestant unionism over Catholic nationalism was a major contributing factor to the outbreak of conflict in 1968. Since partition, however, the demographics of Northern Ireland have changed considerably, with Catholics thought to outnumber Protestants by the centenary of the state’s creation last year, though religious upbringing no longer correlates so strongly with political or national identity.
Under the terms of Northern Ireland’s peace agreement, the British government is required to consent to a referendum on Irish unity if majority support for secession can be demonstrated. The emergence of Sinn Féin as the state’s largest party is a clear step in that direction.
Conversely, failing to win an election for the first time presents something of an existential crisis for unionists, after what has already been a rocky few years. Unionism in Northern Ireland was plunged into crisis following the 2016 Brexit referendum in which voters in Northern Ireland backed remaining in the European Union, but the U.K. as a whole voted to Leave. The result sparked far-reaching questions about the undecided constitutional position of the state, which found itself caught in the middle of negotiations between the British and Europeans over trading arrangements.
The DUP, at the time leading the executive, had supported a hardline version of Brexit which ended up producing the Northern Ireland Protocol — an arrangement in which Northern Ireland remains partially within European customs arrangements, whilst the rest of Britain leaves, necessitating checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea. The protocol is anathema to unionists who regard the checks as an unacceptable separation from Great Britain, and has deeply damaged the standing of the DUP amongst unionists. The party have since collapsed the power sharing executive in opposition to the protocol, leaving Northern Ireland without a government.
Northern Ireland’s unique power sharing rules mandate that the largest parties of each community designation — nationalist and unionist — must share executive power. The largest party nominates a First Minister and the second largest party a Deputy First Minster — equally powerful roles, despite their mismatched titles.
Both ministers must be in place for the executive to function. However, the nomination of a Sinn Féin politician in the First Minister role is a deeply symbolic shift likely to provoke intense anxiety amongst some parts of the unionist community. Thus, it is far from clear that the DUP, who have moved further to the right in recent months, would be willing to resume power sharing under such circumstances.
DUP leader Geoffrey Donaldson has repeatedly refused to answer questions on whether he would work with Sinn Féin to resume Northern Ireland’s governance, instead demanding that the British government renegotiate the protocol first.
In response, Sinn Féin’s O’Neil accused Donaldson of holding Northern Ireland’s electorate hostage. In a pre-election BBC debate, O’Neil said “The DUP are dishonest with the public, and holding us all to ransom. They’re holding our politics to ransom and they’re holding out public to ransom. Whereas the rest of us want to put money in the people’s pockets and deal with the cost of living crisis, the DUP are telling people that their identity is under threat.”
Ironically, it has been widely suggested that Donaldson’s unwillingness to countenance a Sinn Féin First Minster helped to galvanize the nationalist vote behind the Irish party.
The prospect of a border poll remains a medium to long term goal for Sinn Féin, who are overtly positioning themselves as a party that can win over the non-sectarian electorate. But the nationalist movement has never shied away from a long-term approach, and clearly has momentum behind them.
For the coming months, however, it will be the matter of simply resuming Northern Ireland’s fractured governance, rather than Irish reunification, that will dominate the state’s politics.
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