Northern Ireland’s nationalist Sinn Fein party, which is in favor of reunification with the Republic of Ireland, may take the lead in Thursday’s legislative elections. The first in the country’s history. But more than the rise of power, the century-long decline in power of its main rival, the DUP loyalists, and the dilution of votes would allow it to shine.
Political tipping point for Northern Ireland and the UK? Northern Irish people go to the polls, Thursday, May 5, to elect 90 MPs from Stormont, their parliament. For the first time in the history of this British province, the nationalist pro-reunification party Sinn Fein could come out on top. For several weeks, all the polls gave him a winner. He will win 26% of the vote against 20% for his main rival, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is linked to the British crown and has dominated politics for a century.
Hence this political earthquake would take place 24 years after the Good Friday Agreement which, in 1998, ended the “Troubles”: thirty years of civil war that opposed the Unionists, the majority of Protestants associated with Ireland’s place from the north. Within the United Kingdom and carried by the Democratic Unionist Party, to the Nationalists, the majority of Catholics who dream of a united Ireland and for which Sinn Fein leads the fight.
This victory would be above all a symbolic earthquake in a region where societal divisions remain deep. Since Good Friday, the province is governed by a system of equal power-sharing between the two movements. So if these numbers are confirmed, Sinn Fein will inherit the premiership and deputy prime ministership of the DUP. So the roles will be reversed.
It was unlikely that Sinn Fen’s victory would appear to anyone living in “the troubles”. With good reason, the party is known to have supported the Irish Republican Army (IRA) paramilitaries during this period.
But the party renewed its faces for several years, which allowed it to improve its image. In 2017, a former IRA member, Martin McGuinness, resigned as Deputy Prime Minister shortly before his death. A year later, Jerry Adams, the party’s symbolic leader, gave way to the youth embodied by 45-year-old Michelle O’Neill, the current deputy prime minister in the joint government. Dynamics confirmed the arrival, in 2018, of Mary Lou MacDonald, at the helm of the 49-year-old party. Both women enjoy a positive image in the media. But above all, they entered politics after 1998, so they are not tied to decades of bloody conflict.
“Sinn Fein does not deny or condemn his past association with the IRA,” notes Anis Mayo, a Northern Ireland specialist at the University of Dublin and author of Rebels in Government. “But, at the same time, he tries to separate as much as possible the present party, which has been in existence since the beginning of the twenty-first century, and the party that has been in existence at the end of the twentieth century.”
Moreover, if the party’s raison d’être was the reunification of Ireland, then its campaign was primarily centered on the social question. The party positioned itself on the left, in an effort to mobilize young voters, outraged by housing and employment difficulties at a time when Northern Ireland suffered from high inflation.
But even if Sinn Fen manages to recover his image and free himself from his past, it still forms a glass ceiling, according to Agnes Mayo. “For some people, not just unionists, this is a red line,” she insists.
The proof is that if polls give him a six-point lead over his rival DUP, they also show that he is stagnating with 26% of the vote, less than he got in the last election in 2017 (nearly 28%). .
More than the rise of Sinn Fein’s power, according to the specialist, such a potential victory would be a disaster for its rival, the DUP, and a renewed interest among voters for “third votes” like the Alliance party.
Since 2016 and Brexit, the Unionist Party has been plagued by internal divisions. S’il a d’abord soutenu le “Leave” lors du référendum en 2016, le DUP avait initialement refusé le protocole de sortie de l’Union européenne proposé par Teresa May, qui garantissait pourtant de maintenir le statut de l’Irlande du Nord in the UK. After some time, he decided to support Boris Johnson’s Northern Irish Protocol, which nevertheless establishes a customs border between the province and the rest of the United Kingdom. This is what crystallizes the tensions today.
“For some Unionist voters, the DUP is not doing enough to defend Northern Ireland’s constitutional standing within the United Kingdom. Some therefore tend to turn to the traditional Unionist Vote. [TUV], a stricter formation,” explains Agnes Mayo. Others, on the contrary, believe that the party is closely related to the rejection of the Northern Ireland Protocol. That is why they prefer to resort to the Ulster Unionist Party [UUP]more moderate.” The latter condemns the protocol but calls for dialogue with Brussels.
Some prefer to resort to a third voice, specifically the Alliance, which is a party of union ranks but presents itself as neutral. With good reason, beyond the question of Brexit, the evangelical Protestant position of the DUP on social issues irritates more and more trade unionists. “These voters are pro-choice with regard to abortion and same-sex marriage, and therefore prefer to resort to coalition,” said Peter Sherlow, director of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool. “On the contrary, the DUP is not trying to get them back, but rather trying to mobilize the more conservative voters who have defected from the TUV.”
“The centrist parties attract nationalists and unionists alike,” he continues. According to him, there is a “high level of frustration” among voters regarding the power-sharing system. “It was necessary to end the conflict in the 1990s. But it did not allow all constitutional questions to be cleared.” “It has allowed partisan elites to stay in power” rather than focus on pressing issues such as the state of public services, he said.
However, analysts expect the DUP to hold out better than the polls predicted. Some reluctant unionists will end up “turning their noses up and voting for the DUP” to try to prevent Sinn Féin from winning, analyzes Peter Sherlow.
“The majority of Northern Ireland voters want to stay in the UK”
Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s election will not reflect a decrease in union support, experts also agree.
Despite Brexit anxiety, polls show a majority of Northern Ireland voters want to stay in the UK. A study by the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies, conducted last December, found that only 30% of Northern Irish voters would vote tomorrow for a united Ireland – and that 33.4% of them could see themselves doing so within 10 years. 15 years.
Far from the current dynamics of Good Friday, many Northern Irish Catholics now feel comfortable being associated with the United Kingdom. “Despite the growing Catholic population, there are still many more Catholics who support union than Protestants who support a united Ireland,” said Peter Shirlow. He concludes, “Many Catholics have a material interest in remaining in the Union, whether they work in the public sector or in companies connected to the United Kingdom. Many refuse to experience the turmoil that would be involved in joining the Union of the Republic of Ireland.”
This article was excerpted from the English language by Cyrielle Cabot, the original version can be found here.