Northern Ireland turns to Sinn Fein

LONDON — Six years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, no part of the UK has felt the sting in the tail more than Northern Ireland, where Brexit has laid the foundation for Sinn Fein’s remarkable rise in the parliamentary elections this week.

With nearly all the votes counted on Saturday, Sinn Fein, Ireland’s main nationalist party, declared victory, racking up 27 of the 90 available seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the most of any party in the territory. The Democratic Unionist Party, which represents those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, slipped to second place, with 24 seats.

“Today ushers in a new era which I believe offers us all the opportunity to reinvent relationships in this society on the basis of fairness, on the basis of equality and on the basis of social justice. “, said Michelle O’Neill, the president of the party. leader who is about to become the region’s prime minister.

Although Brexit was not on the ballot, it cast a shadow over the campaign, particularly for the DUP, the flagship unionist party that has led the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. since its inception by the Good Friday Peace Agreement almost a quarter of a century ago.

The legacy of Brexit has rippled through local elections across the British Isles: in London, where anti-Brexit voters ceded Conservative Party strongholds to Labour, and in the ‘Red Wall’ areas of the pro-Brexit rust belt in England, where the Tories have resisted. Work. But in Northern Ireland, the effect of Brexit was decisive.

For all the history of Sinn Fein’s victory – the first for a party that calls for a united Ireland and has residual links to the Irish Republican Army – the election results are less of a breakthrough for Irish nationalism than a marker of the demoralization of Unionist voters. , the disarray of their leaders and an electorate that gives more importance to economic issues than to sectarian struggles.

Much of this can be attributed to Brexit.

“Accepting the loss of supremacy is a daunting task for trade unionism,” said Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. “But the trade unionists really managed to shoot themselves in the foot.”

The DUP has struggled to bring together voters divided and angry over the changed status of the North – it is the only UK member that shares a border with the European Union member Republic of Ireland.

This hybrid status has complicated life in many ways, including requiring a complex trade agreement, the Northern Ireland Protocol, which imposes border controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from mainland Britain. Many trade unionists complain that it has driven a wedge between them and the rest of the UK by effectively creating a border in the Irish Sea.

The DUP endorsed the protocol, only to later backfire and walk away from the last Northern Ireland government in protest. Unionist voters punished him for the shift, with some voting for a tougher Unionist party and others turning to a centrist, non-sectarian party, the Alliance, which also recorded significant gains.

The Alliance’s success, political analysts say, suggests Northern Ireland could move past the sectarian furies of the past and a binary divide between unionists and nationalists.

Even Sinn Fein, which for decades has been associated with the bloody struggle for Irish unity, said little about the subject during the campaign, keeping the focus on day-to-day issues like jobs, the cost of living and the overburdened health system.

As the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaches, some analysts have said it is time to review the North’s political structure.

The agreement ended decades of sectarian strife by, among other things, creating an open border on the island. But he also balanced political power between Nationalists and Unionists, at a time when predominantly Protestant Unionists were in the majority and predominantly Catholic Nationalists were a restive minority.

Demographic trends have changed that: the faster-growing Catholic population is poised to overtake Protestants. While the link between religion and political identification is not automatic – there are Catholics who prefer to stay in the UK – trends favored nationalists even before Brexit.

As the largest party, Sinn Fein will have the right to appoint a prime minister, the symbolic senior government official. But the final seat tally between nationalists and trade unionists is likely to be tight, as the other two unionist parties won a handful of seats, and the only other party that calls itself nationalist, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, won. obtained poor results.

As runners-up, the DUP has the right to nominate a deputy prime minister, who functions as a de facto equal. However, he did not commit to participating in a government with a Sinn Fein prime minister. And he has threatened to boycott until the protocol is dropped, a position that garners little support beyond his hard core.

“There is fragmentation within parties trying to reflect a more secular Northern Ireland,” said Katy Hayward, a politics professor at Queen’s University Belfast. “This sits uneasily with the architects of the peace accord. There is no longer a dominant group. We are all minorities.

In this more complex landscape, Prof Hayward said, Sinn Fein was likely to govern as much as it campaigned, focusing on competent management and sound policies rather than mobilizing an urgent campaign for Irish unity.

Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland who is expected to be made prime minister, hailed what she called “the election of a generation”. But she said little about Irish unity. Sinn Fein chief executive Mary Lou McDonald said this week she could foresee an Irish unification referendum within a decade, and possibly “within five years”.

For trade unionists, the exit from the desert is more difficult to trace. Professor Hayward said the DUP faced a tough choice over whether to participate in the next government.

If he refuses, he would violate the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. It would also risk further alienating voters, especially “soft unionists,” who have little patience for continued paralysis in government.

But if he joins the next government, it carries its own perils. The DUP swung to the right during the campaign to fend off a challenge from the more radical party of the traditional unionist voice. She made her opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol an article of faith.

“There may be serious talk now about unionist unity, but there will be no government unless the protocol is passed,” said David Campbell, chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council, which represents a group of pro-union paramilitary groups that vehemently oppose the protocol.

This puts the future of the DUP out of its hands, since the decision to revise the protocol rests with the UK government. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has indicated he is ready to do so – especially if it would facilitate a new Northern Ireland government – ​​but he must weigh other considerations.

Overturning the protocol would increase tensions with the European Union and even risk sparking a trade war, a grim prospect at a time when Britain is already facing runaway inflation and warnings that its economy could slide into recession. later this year.

It would also upset the United States, which has warned Mr Johnson not to do anything that would jeopardize the Good Friday Agreement.

“The Biden administration has made it clear that the protocol does not pose a threat to the Good Friday Agreement,” said Bobby McDonagh, Ireland’s former ambassador to Britain. “It actually helps support the Good Friday deal. It will act as a sort of constraint on Johnson.

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