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Sinn Féin could win the Northern Irish election. Here’s what that means

As a younger generation leaves the old sectarian divisions behind, new political alliances are forming

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
28 April 2022, 10.02am

Polls suggest that Sinn Féin could be on track for a historic win at Northern Ireland's elections on 5 May

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On 3 May 2007, the SNP rewrote constitutional politics in the UK with an electoral message whitewashed in optimism. At the centre of its campaign was a set of pledges – from scrapping student fees to bringing troops home from Iraq – hung from a simple, two-word slogan: “It’s time.”

Fifteen years later and across the Irish Sea, Sinn Féin is about to do the same. It’s widely expected that the party will come first in elections to the Northern Irish Assembly on 5 May.

This victory, if it comes, will be extraordinary. When imperial officials first partitioned Ireland a century ago, they carefully traced the border around Protestant populations in the north-east, in an attempt to secure an enclave that forever felt British.

For decades, the republican movement of which Sinn Féin is part has portrayed this situation as temporary, via its most famous slogan: tiocfaidh ár lá – “our day will come”. This year, with campaign materials that boast the words “time for real change”, Sinn Féin is suggesting it might have arrived.

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Like that SNP campaign 15 years ago, it isn’t putting its constitutional preferences up front. Voters already know about those. Instead, the first section of the party’s manifesto – launched this week – reads: “Rising living costs and fuel and electricity price hikes are placing huge pressure on ordinary people.

“Over a decade of Tory austerity has left workers, families, and public services less able to deal with crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and now the spiralling cost of living. Boris Johnson has done little to support people through this crisis and while people continue to struggle, big corporations and energy companies’ profits soar.”

The party goes on to list a series of practical interventions, from cutting the cost of school uniforms to freezing fares on public transport.

It’s a sensible strategy.

It’s likely the census results will show more Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time

By the end of 2020, the average rent in Northern Ireland was 7.2% higher than it had been a year earlier and has continued to soar since, says Ellen Fearon, president of NUS/USI, Northern Ireland’s student union – whose members make up one in nine people there.

For the first time ever, she says, “students this year couldn’t physically find accommodation”.

In response to rising living costs, the government’s economy ministry, run by a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) politician until the assembly collapsed earlier this year, proposed cuts to education and training, and raising tuition fees by up to 60%. “Students and young people aren’t going to forget we’re the first to face cuts,” says Fearon.

Along with climate change and mental health struggles, she says, this crisis and the proposed response to it will dominate how young people vote in the election on 5 May.

Too often, constitutional politics is written about as though it is just a matter of identity. Nationalism and unionism in Northern Ireland are seen only as being about feelings of Irishness or of Britishness. But in reality, constitutions are simply the rules that govern how we live together.

They change when groups decide living differently would be better. If Sinn Féin wants to convince the peoples of Ireland to unite, it needs to persuade voters that doing so would improve their lives.

A new generation

Next spring will mark 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement put Northern Ireland’s civil war on ice. If you were old enough to vote in the referendum, which confirmed that uneasy peace, you are now at least 42.

Anyone much younger than that came of age not to the rhythm of bombs, kneecappings and death squads, but to the silence of fences and the spluttering of motorways. For many people, the old divisions written into the treaty are no longer the ones that animate their lives.

So the first thing to look out for, as votes are counted next week, is how many seats are won by the parties that refuse to be designated as either nationalist or unionist.

Alliance – the Lib Dems’ sister party – is expected to jump from the 9% it received in 2017 to around 15% this time. With a proportional-ish system, they can hope for commensurate seats. A wee bump in the polls gives the Greens a chance in four of the 90 seats, where they previously had two. The socialist People Before Profit may well win a second assembly member.

In the last couple of years, house prices in rolling rural areas around Belfast have been soaring – with, for example, a 17% increase in the unionist stronghold of County Down. This strongly implies that, as in the rest of the UK, the pandemic has encouraged millennials to seek space outside city centres, redrawing the electoral maps of rural areas – with all the wider implications that has in Northern Ireland.

For now, this non-aligned voter bloc will almost certainly remain smaller than its nationalist or unionist equivalents – though I wouldn’t be sure the same will be true in another five or ten years. But its growth could be significant nonetheless – particularly if, as expected, unionists refuse to work with the ascendant nationalists.

That’s because Sinn Féin is also attracting support from this growing number of cosmopolitan voters. Ahead of the 2017 election, I interviewed a man who lived in a heavily Protestant housing estate in Belfast but sent his kids to a Catholic school, who said he was voting for the party he thought could unite Northern Ireland. For him, that meant Sinn Féin.

This didn’t seem unreasonable. Above us was a line of the party’s posters proclaiming its support for same-sex marriage and abortion rights, which had both long been blocked by the pro-UK DUP (and both of which have since been won). Sinn Féin looks less and less like the republican movement of old – whose image was dominated by that of the IRA – and more and more like the SNP.

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The party’s election campaign this year is being run by John Finucane, the party’s first-ever MP for the historically unionist Belfast North. In a promotional video, he talks about his mum’s unionist family as well the better-known nationalist background of his father Pat – the lawyer murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in collusion with the British security services.

Finucane, who is 42, turned 18 two months before the Good Friday Agreement referendum. Like many of his party colleagues, he represents a new generation of Sinn Féin politicians who can’t be accused of any role in the violence of the Troubles.

As well as attracting first preference votes from some of those who would have avoided the party of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, this change allows Sinn Féin to collect the seconds, thirds and fourths vital to success in Northern Ireland’s electoral system.

The territory is divided up into 18 constituencies, and for assembly elections, each has five representatives. Voters elect them by ranking candidates in order of preference, and the third, fourth and fifth seats can often be decided by those next preferences being transferred from voters for rival candidates.

Until recently, Sinn Féin struggled to pick up transfers from voters beyond their nationalist heartlands – and, in turn, encouraged their loyal voters not to transfer to anyone else. Now, a new alliance is emerging, which looks set to transform the constitutional politics of the UK as much as the ascent of the SNP did 15 years ago.

Beneath these electoral changes lies a deeper, longer-term shift. Publication of the 2021 census has been delayed until after the election. But it’s likely the statistics will show two things: first, that more people than ever see themselves as neither Catholic nor Protestant. Second, there will probably be more Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time since its borders were drawn.

That’s a mighty change, given the reasons for the statelet’s creation.

Unionism at a crossroads

If Sinn Féin does become the biggest party, its leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, can expect to become first minister. Her party’s overall leader, Mary Lou McDonald, is currently on course to become Taoiseach in the Republic of Ireland at the next general election there. If that happens, then Ireland won’t be ‘united’ in the sense that anyone has meant historically – but its two territories will be led by women from the same party, one of whom is the other’s boss.

For much of the unionist electorate, the prospect is hard to accept. In 1998, both major nationalist parties backed the Good Friday Agreement; 99% of the Catholic electorate followed their lead and voted Yes. But the main unionist parties split, with the Democratic Unionist Party opposing the deal, and 43% of Protestants voting No.

There has always been a large portion of loyalist Northern Ireland which seeks to preserve a past in which Protestants had supremacy. It’s not surprising: being part of the British empire gave Protestants jobs in mighty shipyards and access to the plunder of colonialism. Being the governing class of Northern Ireland gave them control over government jobs and funds. Losing that status makes them – certainly not all, but definitely many – bitter.

With a decade of austerity and the longer-term loss of industrial jobs, the bitterness is passed on down the generations. You see it at the frequent Orange Order parades, the bonfires with their effigies and the tatty Union flags. It’s the bitterness of a working-class community left to rot by those their families have been loyal to for centuries.

The iconic Harland & Wolff shipyard, which once employed tens of thousands, now only provides 400 jobs. Between 2009 and 2019, Northern Ireland’s schools had their spending cut by 11%, more than anywhere else in the UK. Youth work was crushed. At a community centre on the Shankill Road at the heart of loyalist Belfast a couple of years ago, the staff told me that one of their main jobs was reading people their post, such is the scale of illiteracy.

It’s no surprise that Britain’s abandonment of its most loyal supporters has led to resentment, and a hardened core who are endlessly being wound up about something. When the peace process began with the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, 100,000 loyalists rallied against it outside Belfast City Hall. A decade ago, loyalist teenagers – many born after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement – rioted over a proposal that the Union Flag wouldn’t be flown over Belfast City Hall every day. Naomi Long, an Alliance party politician (and now its leader), who had brokered a compromise on the issue, had her office petrol bombed.

For years now, the DUP has managed to pull together a coalition of hardline loyalists and softer unionists. But in interviews over the years with people in both halves of this awkward voter base, I’ve found few who actually like the party.

A typical conversation will involve a ten-minute rant about how awful they are, followed by a confession that the interviewee will be voting for them anyway, to stop “the other lot” – Sinn Féin – from becoming the biggest party. One recent poll showed that 65% of unionists will choose who to vote for based entirely or partly on who is best placed to stop a nationalist becoming first minister.

The DUP has made clear it wouldn’t provide a deputy to serve under Sinn Féin

Scandal after scandal has led to what one Northern Irish activist described to me as a sense of “flamboyant corruption” around the DUP. During the Theresa May years, when it was extracting genuine money from the British government and funnelling it to unionist communities, its voters could at least write this off as bringing home the bacon. But since the 2019 election, the pork has run out.

In the midst of all this, Brexit happened. A customs border was imposed between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, as a result of the Northern Ireland Protocol, infuriating unionist and loyalist leaders. The DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, was booted out because of the perception that she’d failed to stop it. Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), a hardline loyalist party, profited from the outrage. The DUP, now led by Jeffrey Donaldson, has moved further right in pursuit of its departing voters.

“[DUP politicians] have been speaking at all of these very toxic rallies with some of the craziest motherfuckers,” says one long-term observer of Northern Irish politics who asked not to be named. Early in April, the leaders of both the DUP and TUV were forced to distance themselves from Rusty Thomas, a fundamentalist American pastor they shared a platform with at a rally against the Protocol, after his record of extremist statements was made public. (Among these, he described a Northern Ireland hospital as the “gates of hell” because abortions were performed there.)

Now, says the observer, unionists are “trying to put the genie back into the bottle” as the election approaches. “But at every attempt to compromise, a new splinter [group] comes and claims to represent the true faith of unionism.”

In reality, the number of adherents to this true faith is probably smaller than ever. The recent protests over the Northern Ireland protocol are probably smaller than the flag protests a decade ago, and nothing to those demonstrations in 1985. Only one in five unionist voters list the protocol as their primary issue in this election, according to one recent poll.

It’s likely that Unionist voters will still cautiously gather around the DUP, as the only hope to stop Sinn Féin coming first. But neither the hardliners nor the moderates will do so with much enthusiasm.

The DUP, which has long held the office of the first minister – alongside a theoretically equal Sinn Féin deputy first minister – has been clear that it won’t provide a deputy to serve under Sinn Féin. Nor will it serve in an executive until its complaints about the Protocol are resolved to its satisfaction.

Because the treaties that created the Northern Irish Assembly require cooperation between the biggest parties on each side of the old divide, this leaves a quandary. Will the British government change the rules so that another party – probably the Alliance, which is likely to come third – can take up the deputy post? Will new elections be called (which would change little) or will Westminster impose direct rule? Or, indeed, will it agree to a form of shared rule with Dublin?

The end of Good Friday?

The Good Friday Agreement offered a trade-off. The people of Northern Ireland got peace. In exchange, they accepted a deeply flawed political system, one which neatly divided the two sides and handed power to the patriarchs of each.

Middle-class, often Protestant families stretched out into ex-urban sprawl around Belfast and hid behind steering wheels and garden fences. Working-class, more often but not always Catholic, families choked on fumes in the inner city, and were divided by vast fences to stop their teenagers attacking each other: there are more miles of these so-called ‘peace walls’ now than there were in 1998.

It sort of worked: there’s been less killing. And it sort of didn’t work: in a society where almost everyone is traumatised, or caring for someone who is, more people have died by suicide since the end of the war than died violently during it.

The foundations of the deal made all the same assumptions as the rest of Blairism: an economic growth model built on shopping, commuting, and consumer debt that went pop in 2008; an ever-more integrated Europe that was killed off in 2016.

The idea was that on the one hand, community tensions would be forgotten amid the unstoppable rise of the neoliberal individual. On the other, the Big Men who claimed to represent each community would have their power enshrined permanently – or at least as long as the deal survived. Many expected it to be dead by now. Instead, it is undead, limping on because everyone is afraid to replace it, not thriving because no one is enthusiastic enough to make it succeed.

Some of my contacts in Northern Ireland believe a more radical democratic approach is needed to escape the impasse. “In the current system,” says Ellen Fearon, “there isn’t the space to create the change we want to see.”

Most Northern Irish voters aren’t yet convinced that this space will be created by leaving the UK and uniting with the Republic – a recent poll put support at 32%. But that’s up from 3.8% in September 2013, and higher than support for Scottish independence was before campaigning began in the 2014 referendum.

If Sinn Fein does top the poll on 5 May – and the Stormont assembly collapses, once again – the question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional future will return once more.

Northern Ireland’s destiny is not settled. It will belong to whoever can paint their version of it in the most exquisite colours. At the moment, those aren’t red, white and blue.

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