It was a stunning and historic victory for Sinn Fein. In the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election commentators had made a lot of noise about Sinn Fein being 1,200 votes behind the DUP. This time the party of the IRA were over 66,000 votes ahead of the party of Ian Paisley. Compare the proportion of seats held by the Unionists in the first Northern Ireland Parliament in 1921 (77%), with the number in the new NI Assembly (41%). And remember that parliament was set up to rule over a statelet in which Unionists were meant to have a majority in perpetuity.
So Sinn Fein have every reason to feel triumphant. They fought an extraordinarily disciplined campaign, focussing on the bread-and-butter issues of the cost of living and health, and playing the equality and democracy cards for all they were worth: notably the absolute right of the nationalist community, led by Michelle O’Neill (whose poster was everywhere),to take the First Minister’s post in the event of a majority for their chosen party. Former minister John O’Dowd said those (i.e. in the DUP and Traditional Unionist Voice) who did not recognise this right were sending out “the wrong message.” There was barely a mention of a Border Poll and no sign of Gerry Adams anywhere. Their main spokespeople, led by John Finucane and Gerry Kelly, were superb, clearly of a superior calibre to their DUP opponents. In politics the quality of leadership really matters. In the words of the Irish News’ Sinn Fein-friendly columnist Chris Donnelly, their message was one of “unrelenting positivity,” representing a successful “move to the middle”.
And in another impressive show of discipline, they restrained their triumphalism. The only one who broke ranks was party president Mary Lou McDonald, who swept regally into the Belfast counting centre, surrounded by her entourage, mouthing platitudes about a “new Ireland” and telling the BBC she believed an impossibly divisive Border Poll would happen within five years (this was despite a Liverpool University/Irish News poll last month showing that only 30% of people in Northern Ireland would vote for unity ‘tomorrow’ and only 33.4% in 10-15 years time).
For somebody like me, a ‘soft’ nationalist who oscillates between supporting the SDLP and Alliance, there was good and bad news. The bad news was the woeful performance by John Hume’s party, which was squeezed into fifth place as nationalists backed Sinn Fein in order to overturn 101 years of unionism as ‘top dog’. The good news was Alliance’s extraordinary breakthrough: more than doubling their seat share under Naomi Long’s strong leadership, and for the first time giving real political weight to the rapidly growing number of ‘others’- particularly young people – who have little or no time for the stale old verities of unionism and nationalism. It is only a pity that two of Alliance’s victories were at the expense of the small Green Party: not for the first time, Northern Ireland goes against the zeitgeist in this fundamental space.
One cheering development was the record number of women – 32 – returned to the 90-strong Assembly (53% of Sinn Fein’s candidates were women). The political editor of the Belfast Telegraph, Suzanne Breen, said the influx of “young, socially liberal women would be a real force for change.” This was personified by the vivid young Alliance candidate, Patricia O’Lynn, who grabbed the last seat from a longstanding DUP stalwart in the bedrock unionist constituency of North Antrim. O’Lynn, a Catholic from the fiercely Protestant stronghold of Larne, has a PhD in education and a Master’s degree in criminology.
With leader Doug Beattie scraping back on the fourth count in Upper Bann, the Ulster Unionists discovered yet again that the constituency for liberal unionism – outside Alliance, which is now agnostic on the constitutional question – is a narrow, stony ground. Unionist leaders from Terence O’Neill to David Trimble to Mike Nesbitt have found themselves outcast on this little desert before.
The DUP was once again caught in a trap of its own making: hung up on the negativity and divisiveness of insisting that the NI Protocol would have to be removed before they took their seats in any new Executive. It is difficult to credit how many mistakes the party of hard-line unionism and anti-Irishness has made since the departure of Peter Robinson and the advent of an existentially undermining Brexit. It was almost unbelievable how they allowed the party committed to the destruction of Northern Ireland to present itself credibly as the one that – in Michelle O’Neill’s words – “irrespective of religious, political or social backgrounds” wants to “make politics work” in the North. Time will tell if this is a sincere promise, or just an electoral gambit. In stark contrast, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson threatened that if Boris Johnson did not deal with the Protocol issue to the DUP’s satisfaction, there would be “perpetual political instability” in NI. The BBC’s Mark Carruthers pointed out that “if you want the Union to be secure, you need to make Northern Ireland work.” Wiser heads on the unionist side must have lifted their despairing eyes to heaven.
But what has actually changed in the North? We are back into a wearily extended negotiation among the parties that could take six months and result in another election. Changes in the Protocol depend on outside actors in London and Brussels who have little patience with the phobias of the lilliputian Ulster Unionists. Former Irish Times Northern editor Gerry Moriarty suggested that the Irish government now has a responsibility to help move the EU towards “a bit of pragmatism and movement on the Protocol.” Taoiseach Micheál Martin seemed to be open to this, insisting that so far intractable issues can be resolved. “The landing zone is there”, he said. He believed if it was a question of “making trade as seamless as possible”, compromises could be reached that should be acceptable to the DUP: the problem, he said, lies as always in the nature of Northern Irish politics (shorthand for the DUP and loyalism’s political constituency, always paranoid about any perceived weakening of the constitutional link with Britain). In London, of course, there is the additional problem of a Prime Minister who is a liar and a scoundrel and probably wants to keep the Protocol pot boiling for his own internal party reasons.
In terms of the longer-term and a possible Border Poll, little or nothing has changed. As both Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney pointed out, the balance between the unionist and nationalist votes in the North has not altered significantly. Asked whether it was time to set out the conditions for a Border Poll, Lewis told the BBC that the overall unionist vote “is still larger…Sinn Fein have not gained seats; we haven’t seen a growth in the nationalist vote.” 35 Assembly seats are held by Nationalists (perhaps 36 if you include the Trotskyist People Before Profit), and 37 by Unionists (including the two independent unionists): almost total deadlock, in fact. SDLP-friendly Irish News commentator Tom Kelly said that when John Hume won his last European Parliament election in 1999, his share of the vote stood at over 45%; in last week’s election the nationalist share was 38% (more rigorous analysts have put this at 41%). The combined unionist share was 42%.
One thing that may be up for discussion will be the Good Friday/St Andrews Agreements’ near- incomprehensible system of MLAs ‘designating’ themselves as unionist, nationalist or ‘other’, and then the First and Deputy First Minister being nominated by the largest party within the largest sectarian designation and the largest party within the second largest sectarian designation respectively. Alliance object particularly strongly to this, pointing out it meant that if they had come second in this election (instead of a good third), Naomi Long would not have been allowed to take up the post of Deputy First Minister. Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said this system had to be changed because it gave the two largest parties a veto over government formation: Sinn Fein had blocked any government formation from 2017 to 2020, and the DUP were threatening to do so now.
If all this sounds difficult and ultra-complicated, that’s because it is. Let us leave the last word to Tom McTague, the London-based staff writer with the US magazine The Atlantic, who is one of the very few foreign journalists who understands (or rather admits he fails to understand) how the strange place that is Northern Ireland works.
In the magazine’s current issue, he writes: “The truth of [last] Thursday’s elections is surely that the reunification of Ireland is now more likely, and that Northern Ireland will finally be able to put to bed the divisions over Brexit and move on. Right? Wrong.
“The reality remains that Northern Ireland remains as stuck as ever, a Gordian knot without an Alexander to slice it open. In fact, in Northern Ireland there can be no Alexander – and that is the point. The knottiness of Northern Ireland is by design. Remaining stuck is the only way the place works.
“Two inescapable truths continue to govern Northern Ireland. The first is that while Sinn Fein emerged ahead of all other parties in Thursday’s election, a sizable majority of the electorate is still in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom rather than joining the Republic of Ireland. The second is that the Northern Ireland that exists is a strange, unfair and largely dysfunctional place that works only when both its nationalist and unionist communities consent to the system governing it. While more people are now voting for the third-way Alliance Party, which argues that other bread-and-butter issues matter more than unionism or nationalism, for now, Northern Ireland’s political and constitutional reality remains unchanged.”
McTague concludes: “In many ways it [Northern Ireland], is also a deeply unreal place, where the politics of make-believe is the only thing that works: where democracy is real, but not really; where peace settlements rule, but do not settle anything; and where sectarian division is lamented, but entrenched by the system lauded by all. It is a place where Irish nationalists win but are no closer to Irish unity; where unionists lose but are no less powerful; and where clean, rational solutions that look good on paper need to become dirty, irrational compromises that look terrible on inspection if they are to stand a chance of working.” [The only bit of this I disagree with is that unionists “are no less powerful”].