Ostensibly, the election in Northern Ireland will focus on health care and inflation. As the New York Times reports today, however, the results will inevitably take on the freight of both Brexit and reunification — especially given where polls suggest voters may be leaning. The former political wing of the IRA, Sinn Féin, appears to lead the Unionists, although perhaps not by enough to control Stormont:
“There’s no way I would vote Sinn Fein,” said Mrs. Gow, 66, who, like her husband, is a die-hard supporter of the Democratic Unionist Party, which favors Northern Ireland’s current status as part of the United Kingdom. “But if they’re committed to serving everyone equally, people will have to live with it.”
That would be music to the ears of Sinn Fein’s leaders. In polls this past week, they held a lead of two to six percentage points over the D.U.P., running a campaign that emphasizes kitchen-table concerns like the high cost of living and the need for better health care — and that plays down the party’s ideological commitment to Irish unification, a legacy of its ties to the Irish Republican Army.
Irish unification, party leaders say, is an over-the-horizon issue, over which Sinn Fein has limited control. It is up to the British government to call a referendum on whether Northern Ireland should stay part of the United Kingdom or join the Republic of Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s fractured parliamentary landscape probably will result in a muddled picture at best regardless of who wins. The “executive” has operated in fits and starts for years. In 2017, it effectively disbanded for three years after Sinn Féin insisted on pushing an Irish Language Act. The five major parties agreed to reconstitute the executive in January 2020, just days ahead of the UK’s “Brexit” from the EU. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) ended up the big loser in Brexit’s final settlement — more on which in a moment — but still retained the First Minister position in the NI executive, first with Arlene Foster and now with Paul Givan. Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill has held the Deputy First Minister for the entire executive.
The polls definitely show that those positions would switch, assuming that they accurately predict voter choices in this week’s election. The Belfast Telegraph reports that Sinn Féin has a 26/20 lead over DUP on a poll LucidTalk of 3700 respondents (±2.5%) that shows little movement in the final days. The problem for both unionists and nationalists is that the unionist vote has fractured across several parties, likely due to the DUP failure in pushing its Brexit goals of remaining entirely within the UK’s trade boundaries:
The DUP is failing to significantly narrow the electoral gap with Sinn Fein with less than a week until the Assembly election.
A new poll shows Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s party lagging six percentage points behind Michelle O’Neill’s.
Sinn Fein support remains unchanging on 26%. Although the DUP is up one percentage point to 20%, the party would have been expected to make greater inroads so close to polling day.
Needless to say, a win like this would be a truly historic moment. For most of Sinn Féin’s existence, its mission was to put an end to Northern Ireland as a British enclave. Now it is on the precipice of running the enclave as part of the United Kingdom.
Once one gets past the topline number that determines control of the executive, though, the outcome looks much less rosy for Sinn Féin. They and the SDLP end up with 36% of the vote for the nationalists, while the DUP and three other unionist parties would combine for 57%. (The remainder among more minor parties appears to lean in SF/SDLP’s nationalist direction, based on second-choice responses in the poll.) It’s probably far too much to believe that those four parties would work well together on most policies, but that kind of a parliamentary block would certainly be strong enough to stall out any reunification attempts by Sinn Féin, or maybe even be strong enough to keep blocking an Irish Language Act. At best, such a parliament could enact incremental policies focused on day-to-day issues for its constituents, which likely would delight most voters in Northern Ireland anyway.
So would a Sinn Féin win turn into just another flavor of impasse, the more-or-less traditional state of being at Stormont? Perhaps, but the unionists are worried that there will be more to it:
“If Sinn Fein are the largest party, the focus will immediately turn to their calls for a border poll” to determine whether a majority of people favor Irish unity, said Gordon Lyons, a Democratic Unionist who represents Carrickfergus. “What people want to avoid is the division, the arguments, and the rancor that would come from that.”
But it is the Democratic Unionists who are laying the groundwork for the rancor. They have warned they will refuse to take part in a government with a Sinn Fein first minister. The party pulled its own first minister from the government in February in a dispute over the North’s trade status since Brexit, which is governed by a legal construct known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Unionists complain that the protocol, which requires border checks on goods passing from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland, has driven a wedge between the North and the rest of the United Kingdom. They are pressuring Prime Minister Boris Johnson to overhaul the arrangement, which he negotiated with the European Union.
Johnson has bigger fish to fry at the moment, of course. He may have to face a confidence vote based on his behavior at parties during COVID-19 lockdowns, plus a Conservative backbencher just resigned over a porn-in-Westminster scandal. Johnson needs to conserve what political strength he has now by working with the EU and NATO on Ukraine, which has bolstered Johnson’s international standing in recent weeks. This would be a most inopportune time to pick another fight with the EU, while Johnson and Joe Biden attempt to get NATO members to remain united against the threat from Russia.
That’s one big problem for unionists in the short run, but hardly the only matter weighing on their fortunes. The Brexit issue put the writing on the wall for Northern Ireland as an autonomous entity in two ways. First, Johnson’s settlement with the EU greatly reduced the British identity of NI by sticking it outside of the UK’s trading area. (One issue for unionists is that hated trade border in the Irish Sea, the only practical solution for maintaining the Good Friday Agreement in Brexit.) That undermined the political strength and cohesion of unionists, which have had political dominance in NI until very lately. Even this polling will still reflect some dominance, but their fractured and dissonant path after Brexit almost certainly will erode it.
More importantly, as the NYT also notes, the demographics in Northern Ireland favor the nationalists. Although the conflict was never as neat as the global media’s “Protestant vs Catholics” conflict made it out to be, there seems little doubt that the population that considers itself Irish rather than British will soon outnumber those who embrace their British identities — already somewhat undermined by Brexit, as mentioned before. That may make this election result a short-term muddle but part of a long-term transition for Northern Ireland that will eventually result in a peaceful reunification with the Republic of Ireland.
It won’t happen next week, next month, or next year. However, thanks in large part to the disconnects of Brexit, that day doesn’t look too far off in the future either. A Sinn Féin victory this week will be a wake-up call to everyone, perhaps especially to Dublin.
Update: I wrote about the tensions around an Irish Language Act four years ago, when the executive had been suspended for over a year because of it. This is less of a front-line issue in these elections, but it might be the first big test of Sinn Féin’s ability to govern if it does win the elections.
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