Crisis in permanence

Sinn Féin is hailing an historic turning point, but, despite that, Irish reunification is still a long way off. Anne McShane and Kevin Bean look at the results

The elections in Northern Ireland - which saw Sinn Féin become the largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party relegated to second place and the Alliance Party emerge as an important political force - have been widely hailed as an historic turning point.

On the face of things this is a momentous shift in Irish and UK politics, representing a critical reversal of what had been the status quo in Northern Ireland since 1921, when a cast-iron unionist majority was contrived to ensure that the Six Counties remained part of the UK. Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA), Sinn Féin, as the largest party, could potentially take the helm of Northern Ireland’s government. The symbolism is unmistakeable.

However, this election success may not so easily translate into positions in government. Under the rules for power-sharing set out by the GFA, the first minister is nominated by the largest party of the largest designation (meaning unionist or nationalist) and the deputy first minister is nominated by the largest party of the second-largest designation. The GFA further stipulates that the executive cannot function without representatives of both ‘designations’. Since 2007, when the current form of the executive and assembly were established, the DUP has held the first minister position, with Sinn Féin as deputy. Now that SF has 27 seats, as opposed to 25 for the DUP, it is clear those roles have to change. Michelle O’Neill, SF vice-president, should now be nominated as first minister, with her deputy coming from the DUP.

However, such a smooth transition is not going to happen. The DUP’s leader, Sir Geoffrey Donaldson, has made it clear that his party will not enter into the executive with Sinn Féin until his party’s problems with the Northern Ireland protocol are resolved. In February the DUP exercised its veto to collapse the executive in protest over that protocol, which, for trade and customs purposes, leaves Northern Ireland within the European Union’s single market and customs framework. According to unionists, this weakens the Six Counties’ place in the UK, and so scrapping the protocol became the major plank in the DUP’s election campaign. In the post-election manoeuvres this remains the DUP’s position and so it is unlikely, as things stand, that a new executive will be formed any time soon.1

Whilst much of the attention has understandably focused on Sinn Féin, the very real predicament in which the DUP leadership now finds itself is perhaps more significant. This political hiatus could go on in one form or another into next year. The GFA allows for six months in which to form a government, after which there has to be another election. Since Brexit, which the DUP campaigned for, and the controversy over the border in Northern Ireland with the EU and Britain, the DUP’s vote has dropped very significantly. It went from 38 members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) in May 2016 to 28 in March 2017 and now 25 in May 2022. Although not translated into seats won, the DUP at this election haemorrhaged votes to the more hard-line unionist party, the Traditional Unionist Voice, which will continue to gain if the DUP shows any sign of compromising over opposition to the protocol.2

It is clear that the DUP is hoping that the Johnson government will ride to its rescue and unilaterally scrap the protocol. However, far from getting the DUP out of the hole it dug for itself, this solution simply entangles it still further in the internal politics of the Tories, and the growing diplomatic rift between Westminster and the EU. Whether this is sabre-rattling on both sides remains to be seen, but, given the wider geopolitical context of the war in Ukraine, the strategic importance Washington attaches to the EU and the political difficulties facing the Tories, the political priorities of the DUP will not be high on anyone’s agenda. Recent history has shown that, when bigger forces and interests are brought into play, the narrow concerns of unionism usually take a very distant second place in the priorities of British governments.

Driving seat?

Alongside Sinn Féin’s new-found position as the largest party in the Six Counties, both in terms of MLAs and first-preference votes, the growth in support for the Alliance Party is also politically significant. With 17 MLAs - an increase of nine from the last election - and 13.5% of first preferences, the party’s success was claimed by many to herald the arrival of a new cross-community ‘third force’ in the north that challenged the old communal, ‘sectarian’ politics of unionism versus nationalism.

In the run-up to the election, opinion polls and surveys seemed to point to a growing section of Northern Ireland’s population who wished to be designated as neither unionist nor nationalist, but opted for some other, more ‘neutral’ identifier. A closer examination of the Alliance vote, its geographical and demographic distribution, and its reliance on transfers rather than first preferences to secure seats tends to cast doubt on some of the more over-wrought headlines and claims about a breakthrough.3 Despite the excitement of the commentariat and the bullish language, the communal divisions (which the GFA aimed to manage and continues to reproduce) still remain the defining framework for politics in the Six Counties.

Although Sinn Féin only had a marginal increase in its vote in this election and did not win any additional seats, it feels it is in the driving seat: it is the party which opposed Brexit, is pro-EU and ready to go into government on both sides of the border. In the immediate aftermath of the poll Michelle O’Neill declared that the election “ushers in a new era which I believe presents us all with an opportunity to reimagine relationships in this society on the basis of fairness, on the basis of equality and the basis of social justice”4 This studiously moderate and inclusive language echoed much of the party’s toned-down campaign rhetoric, but in the days that followed she has been demanding - along with MLAs representing the Social Democratic and Labour Party as well as the Alliance Party - that the DUP takes its seats to form an executive by May 13. Putting pressure on the British government to respect her party’s electoral mandate, she stated: “The public here can’t be a pawn in the British government’s game of chicken with the EU. Time to form an executive now.”5

The political and psychological advantage of Sinn Féin’s electoral strength has increased calls for the British secretary of state, Brandon Lewis, to call a border poll on the constitutional status of the north. He has dismissed these calls, but on both sides of the border leading Sinn Féin politicians are continuing to argue that the dynamics for such a transition are now falling into place. The confidence that the party’s leaders exhibit seems initially justified by the election results in the north and SF’s strong position in the opinion polls south of the border. The possibilities of an SF first minster and a dominant role in government in Dublin within the next two years appear to be in reach.

While this optimism might play well for its activists, there are real obstacles in the way of such a gradualist, transitional strategy. In constitutional terms, the British state still holds the whip hand: the institutions and electoral mechanisms of the GFA were designed to manage, not end, conflict, and so the basic underlying conflict of Irish reunification and national democracy remains intact and unresolved. In Dublin, the Irish bourgeoisie and its state are terrified of the costs and the instability that reunification would entail. Far from welcoming the completion of ‘the national project’, all they want is stability and a modified form of the status quo: they recoil in horror from the possible disruption and threat to their interests that a new all-Ireland state would entail. Any dynamic energy for reunification that SF sees coming from that quarter is purely wishful thinking on its part.

In the Six Counties the electoral arithmetic still favours the unionists. While Sinn Féin is the largest party, the total number of unionist MLAs still outnumbers the combined nationalist representation. There will be no border poll in the immediate future: the British government is under no real pressure to act on that score. Indeed, the pressure is all the other way. Despite the vagaries of the electoral cycle and the tensions over Brexit and the protocol, London and Dublin both want stability and the continuation of the status quo in the Six Counties. So, with some necessary modifications and diplomatic legerdemain in the coming months, both states will continue the partnership embodied in the GFA and thus work to secure their long-term goals.

In that sense, the more it changes, the more Northern Ireland remains the same - a crisis in permanence.

  1. www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-61406434.↩︎

  2. The single transferable voting system used in Northern Ireland enables us to understand the pattern of transfers and shifts of opinion within the communal voting blocs. See the full results and details at www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2022/northern-ireland/results.↩︎

  3. The designation of the Alliance Party as ‘cross-community’ belies its acceptance of the constitutional status quo and willingness to accept a unionist designation in the assembly, as the occasion has demanded since 1998. See www.irishtimes.com/news/alliance-party-confirms-re-designation-of-mlas-as-unionists-1.402409. See also the party’s own website: www.allianceparty.org.↩︎

  4. www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/naomi-long-mary-lou-mcdonald-stormont-alliance-party-northern-ireland-b2073801.html.↩︎

  5. www.rte.ie/news/ireland/2022/0510/1297112-northern-ireland-politics.↩︎