Historic moment or business as usual?

Kevin Bean looks at the possibilities for Sinn Féin following the assembly elections

Michelle O’Neill (SF leader in the north) and Gerry Adams

Following last week’s elections, Northern Ireland is once more back in the media limelight after almost a decade away from the national headlines.

As this paper goes to press, crisis talks are already underway, as ministers from London and Dublin joined Sinn Féin and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leaders in an attempt to cobble together a new power-sharing executive and resume what passes for ‘business as usual’ in Northern Ireland. As the various parties assemble for preliminary negotiations, political commentators are poring over voting figures and patterns to try and make sense of a number of surprising electoral developments with possibly profound implications for the political and constitutional future of the region.

Variously described as “historic”, a “watershed” and “a brutal result for unionism”, the unexpected surge in support for Sinn Féin has transformed the political landscape in the Six Counties.1 The bald headlines tell the story: whilst remaining the largest party in the assembly with 28 seats, the DUP is now only one seat and 1,168 first preference votes ahead of Sinn Féin. For the first time in the history of the Northern Irish state, unionists no longer hold a majority at Stormont. Significantly this shift in the balance of power is not just a product of the Sinn Féin surge: a handful of small centrist or ‘non-sectarian’ parties, such as the Alliance Party and the Greens, have also eaten into the unionist vote.

Another noteworthy feature of the election noted by many commentators and politicians was the increased turnout - 10% up on the 2016 election - with some of the biggest increases in areasp where unionists suffered unexpected losses. Increased turnout in ‘traditional’ nationalist constituencies was also a significant factor in the 3.9% growth in Sinn Féin’s first-preference vote.2 As one commentator put it, the nationalist base was so energised by the election mood that it was “as if they thought they were back on the civil rights marches again”.3 This sudden surge in electoral participation, which appears to have swept across the board, ends a decade-long decline in voter turnout, fuelled by a growing cynicism about and disaffection from ‘post-agreement’ politics in the region.

Before the election many had expected this pattern to continue, predicting a further decline in turnout and deepening voter estrangement from the two dominant parties, the DUP and SF. Sinn Féin, in particular, had lost ground in the 2016 assembly elections to People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA), which not only topped the poll in West Belfast, but also gained a seat in Derry. This time around a number of commentators confidently suggested that the success of the PBPA would be not only be repeated, but perhaps even bettered.

The PBPA conducted a well-organised and effective campaign which, in the early stages at least, seemed to justify both their own and the media’s predictions of an increase in seats. Many Sinn Féin activists on the ground in West Belfast believed they faced a significant challenge from the left, as the PBPA capitalised on widespread disillusion with the political status quo and Sinn Féin’s role in government.4 However, these expectations and hopes were confounded by an apparently re-energised nationalist electorate, which turned out in greater numbers to vote for Sinn Féin. The PBPA’s first preferences in West Belfast fell from 8,299 to 5,999 (or from 22.9% to 14.9%). Eamon McCann lost his seat due to the reduction of seats in each constituency from 6 to 5. He came 6th in 2016.

Arlene the arrogant?

The cause and the significance of this increased turnout and surge in the nationalist vote have become central questions for post-election analyses. The personal unpopularity of DUP leader and first minister Arlene Foster amongst nationalist voters has become a popular explanation. For many, Foster’s attitudes and behaviour appear to be the epitome of unreconstructed unionist bigotry and arrogance. Her original role in setting up the controversial ‘green energy’ scheme that precipitated the election, combined with her aggressive response in the face of calls to ‘step aside’ and submit to an enquiry, reinforced Foster’s image as an intransigent unionist from the bad old days. Taken together with her disdainful attitude towards the legal recognition of the Irish language, Arlene Foster found herself labelled as the main recruiting agent for Sinn Féin in the election.5

Others, including SF leader Gerry Adams, have argued that Brexit was a significant factor in bringing out nationalist voters. The DUP was the only major party to back Brexit, in a region where 56% of voters backed ‘remain’, and, in the months following the referendum, Sinn Féin has placed calls for Northern Ireland to be given special status in the European Union at the centre of its demands. Fears about a return of a ‘hard border’ and concerns about the economic impact of Brexit across the whole island are strong amongst the nationalist population, especially in border areas.6 These fears may have contributed to Eamonn McCann’s loss of his seat in Derry: in its election leaflets Sinn Féin hammered home its own pro-EU stance and reminded nationalist voters that the PBPA’s left Brexit position aligned the group with the DUP, unionist hardliners in Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and Eurosceptic Tories.7 Taken at face value, these explanations for the increase in the Sinn Féin vote suggest that an increasingly polarised society in the north and a rising tide of republicanism are but the first steps that would ultimately result in the reunification of Ireland.

We have been here before. Since the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998 and the creation of a ‘power-sharing’ government there have been a series of crises that have either ostensibly threatened the peace process or portended dramatic shifts in the ‘new dispensation’. From the very beginning instability and choreographed crises have been built into the institutions and politics of the ‘new Northern Ireland’ that emerged after 1998. Indeed politics in the region were conducted as a series of crises and threatened breakdowns of the devolved institutions. Innumerable walkouts by the political parties and suspensions of the executive and assembly, followed by round-table talks and high-level interventions by American presidents, British prime ministers and Irish taoisigh, have become the established script of Northern Irish politics over the last 20 years.8

This almost permanent sense of crisis reflects the unresolved political conflicts and uncertainties that lay at the heart of the peace process. The Good Friday agreement was designed to manage conflict, not transform it. Thus the central issue of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status - should it stay as part of the United Kingdom or be reunited in an independent Irish state? - not only remained unresolved, but was kept open in a system defined by communal competition between unionists and nationalists, and structured by coercive participation in the power-sharing institutions set up by the agreement.9 For both the British and Irish governments managing these inter-communal conflicts has proved increasingly difficult and the ‘solutions’ adopted increasingly more short-term in the years that followed.

So what is new now? Have the basic dynamics of this system been fundamentally altered as a result of the elections?

Managing the conflict

Central to any assessment of these changes is an understanding of the communal politics of both the unionist and nationalist electorates. From the late 1960s, the challenge to the state from the nationalist population took various forms, beginning with the civil rights movement and reaching a peak in the ballot paper and Armalite strategy of Provisional republicanism.

These struggles were eventually contained by the British, with the result that from the mid-1980s militant republicanism became increasingly institutionalised and incorporated, culminating in Sinn Féin’s participation in the government of a state it was once pledged to overthrow. Thus Provisionalism ceased to be a revolutionary movement and became instead a communal representative party, initially of just a section of northern nationalists, but after 2001 the dominant voice of its ‘community’. This transformation from “insurrection to parliament” also reflected the changing relationship between the British state and the nationalist population as a whole.10 As a result of conscious British social and economic policies, “nationalist alienation” and grievances were increasingly addressed after 1985, opening up the possibility of further political concessions from the state. This was to bear fruit in the 1990s during the peace process, which gave nationalists a place in a power-sharing government.11

In these ‘new politics’, Sinn Féin, like their counterparts in the DUP, acted as ‘ethnic tribunes’ - becoming the loudest and most effective voices in defending and advancing communal interests. In the case of the Provisionals they still rhetorically adhered to the republican cause and reassured their supporters that taking seats at Stormont was a new phase of struggle and part of the transition to a reunited Ireland. In practice this transition increasingly receded into the distant future and Sinn Féin settled into its role as a party of government.

However, it could never be entirely comfortable in this establishment role, because the inherent instabilities in Northern Irish society and politics surfaced periodically to challenge the new dispensation. Taking part in the management of communal conflict frequently meant actually taking an active part in the conflict itself. The rules of the political game determined Sinn Féin could do no other if it was to retain its position as the dominant party of the “nationalist community”: in order to lead “its community” it sometimes had to follow it. On occasions this necessitated a series of manoeuvres reminiscent of the Grand Old Duke of York: sometimes provoking crisis and mobilising opposition amongst its supporters, whilst at other times making concessions to its opponents and “stretching its base”. In part these political dynamics between the Sinn Féin leadership and its supporters explain both the “crisis” that prompted the election and the growth in support for the party.12

Where is it leading?In this context, how will the crisis be resolved and what will be the longer-term outcomes for politics in Northern Ireland? Does strengthening of the nationalist vote signal the “breakdown of the Good Friday agreement” or a rebalancing of the power dynamics, followed by an (eventual) return to business as usual - crisis management of a Northern Ireland that teeters permanently on the brink?13 There are a number of destabilising factors in the wider political landscape, which could possibly alter the configuration of British, European and international politics. These factors range from Brexit and the possibility of Scottish independence through to the protectionist/isolationist turn in US policy and growing geo-political tensions.

Although often seen as a place apart, Northern Ireland has never been immune to the impact of external political forces, as the development of the peace process has shown.14 Closer to home, the UK government’s austerity programmes may threaten the £10 billion annual subvention which keeps the Six Counties afloat. Any reduction of the Northern Ireland’s financial life support will have a dramatic impact - not only on the living standards of the population at large, but also in limiting the options open to political parties in the region, whatever their political colour.15

In an era of unpredictable election results, it is also worth considering the ‘mood’ of the nationalist and unionist electorates. Sinn Féin has clearly captured a mood of disaffection towards the status quo, but what does that mean? Is its vote a rejection of the Good Friday agreement itself or an impatience with the political gamesmanship which characterises the drift and stasis of post-agreement politics? The history of nationalist voting patterns and support for the agreement since 1998 suggests the latter.16

This electorate was voting to strengthen its communal position under the Good Friday agreement, not for reunification, let alone militant republicanism (which was not on the ballot paper anyway). In any event, Sinn Féin’s inclination to engage in extended negotiations with the possibility of a return to direct rule will inevitably lead a further retreat from any semblance of mass politics to its favoured ground of secret diplomacy and backroom negotiation. Sinn Féin will undoubtedly feel much more comfortable around the negotiating table than engaging with a re-energised but somewhat inscrutable electorate - suggesting that an extended period of talks involving a psychologically weakened DUP and interlocutors from Dublin and London will surely prove the most appealing scenario. Likewise flying kites about a referendum on Irish unity or demands for special status in the EU only really makes tactical sense for Sinn Féin as part of this protracted negotiation.17

This type of long, game-combining attention-seeking, brinkmanship, crisis talks and tactical one-upmanship has served Sinn Féin well throughout the peace process as a way of advancing the party’s position, whilst reassuring the base that it remains committed to the struggle.18 It will not be abandoned now by the party in the months of endless talks and political manoeuvres that lay ahead. Balancing Sinn Féin’s image as both “outsider” and “insider” in order to win further concessions for the nationalist community in the north, while enhancing its potential as a “responsible partner” in coalition in the south, is a proven strategy - and it looks set to be Sinn Féin’s most likely course for the foreseeable future.19 

Notes

1.. See, for example, www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-39166355; and www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/assembly-election-2017/northern-ireland-a-remarkable-election-in some- respects-but-gridlock-remains-1.2998540.

2. www.irishtimes.com/news/politicsa/ni-assembly-imminent-prospect-of Brexit-causes-shift-in –attitudes-1.2998278.

3. www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/assembly-election-2017/ni-assembly-nationalism-felt –it-was-poked-in –the –stomach-and it-snarled –back-1.2998485.

4. The PBPA is affiliated to the Socialist Workers Party in Britain and the Anti-Austerity Alliance-PBPA south of the border.

5. www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland-assembly-election/ni-election-seeing-off-uup-will-not-absolve-dups-arlene-foster-from-being-a-recruiting-agent-for-sinn-fein-35500118.html.

6. Financial Times March 7 2017.

7. For copies of assembly election leaflets see the Irish Election Literature website: https://irishelectionliterature.com.

8. B Hayes and I McAllister Conflict to peace: politics and society in Northern Ireland over half a century Manchester 2013.

9. www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-end-of-northern-ireland-not-so-fast/19537#.WMA1NW_yjcs.

10. T McKearney The Provisional IRA: from insurrection to parliament London 2011.

11. K Bean The new politics of Sinn Féin Liverpool 2007,pp16-50.

12. Ibid pp91-131.

13. The Irish News March 3 2017.

14. B Williams The Northern Ireland peace process and the international context Pneuma Springs 2010.

15. Financial Times March 2 2015.

16. B Hayes and I McAllister op cit.

17. Editorial Financial Times March 8 2017.

18. The Irish News March 8 2017.

19. Irish Times January 26 2017.