As expected by most commentators, Sinn Féin became the largest single party in the Northern Ireland Assembly last week, and Michelle O’Neill, the former Deputy First Minister of the Assembly, is now poised to become First Minister at Stormont. It’s not really that the Nationalists got more votes than in 2018 in these elections, it’s more that the beleaguered Democratic Unionists lost ground to the non-aligned Alliance Party, whose eloquent leader, Naomi Long, is a refreshing voice for less polarised politics in the North. Commentators make the point that people of Northern Ireland can no longer be labelled ‘Green’ or ‘Orange’ based on the town they come from or the church they go to. Many people have other political concerns.
You might think that people in the Republic are happy with this development. After all Sinn Féin is also increasingly popular with voters on this side of the border. In the 2020 Dáil elections, run under the Single Transferable Vote system, they took 24.5% of the first preference vote – higher than any other party, Sinn Féin won 37 seats, a gain of fifteen over the previous election. (Fianna Fáil also won 37 seats, eight fewer than they had had before. Fine Gael, the party of former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, won 35 seats, twelve fewer than they had in the previous administration.) Then Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Green Party formed a coalition which neatly kept Sinn Féin out of government – an outcome worth pondering by those who claim that Proportional Representation results in a government that better reflects the way the people vote.
The mainstream media, for example, the Irish Times, has a downer on Sinn Féin, and the state broadcaster RTÉ is often accused of bias against the party. Objections to ‘the Shinners’ as they are often called by their detractors, are several.
Sinn Féin and the IRA
For a start, the Venn diagram between Sinn Féin and the IRA may not resolve into a single circle, but it must be close. The Old School former Sinn Féin leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, denied ever being part of the IRA, but most people would not find that credible. Sinn Féin is often challenged to renounce, or even apologise for, the violence of ‘The Troubles’, but it hasn’t ever brought itself to do so. In fact, elected Sinn Féin officials have on occasion caused upset with their social media.
In 2018 a Sinn Féin MP (one of those who never takes their seat in the UK parliament) had to resign after posting a video of himself balancing a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head. He was making a reference to an IRA massacre in the village of Kingsmill, South Armagh, where ten Protestant textile workers were shot dead on their way home from work in 1976. Ten out of ten for contemporary references. More recently in the Republic, TD Brian Stanley had to apologise for a tweet referring to two IRA atrocities and another referring to Tanaiste Leo Varadkar’s sexuality. Sinn Féin has also been criticised for selling IRA memorabilia from its shop on Parnell Square. They don’t seem to be able to help it.
The party in the Republic is also suspected of not making its own independent decisions. There are dark mutterings about the party’s leader in the Republic, Mary Lou McDonald, taking instructions from Belfast. Certainly she and Michelle O’Neill often appear together in photo opportunities and have a consistently similar message, but what would you expect from a party whose raison d’etre is unity? But do both of them take instructions from the IRA? Or is that just some typical misogyny from people who don’t believe that two women are capable of leading a major political party?
Regenerations of Sinn Féin
In the years since its formation in 1905, Sinn Féin has had almost as many regenerations as Dr Who. The two major parties, who have had Irish government more or less to themselves ever since, are both offshoots of that original movement. In the 1970s, a split in the party meant that for a while there were two Sinn Féins, who became known as the Official and the Provisional versions.
The current iteration describes itself as not only a ‘nationalist’ but a ‘democratic socialist’ party, and for me this is where the problems occur. Like populists everywhere, it simplistically promises the Moon on a Stick, particularly to younger working people. Over the years it has claimed many voters from the Irish Labour Party, which has consequently been reduced to a rump, although Labour’s fortunes may change after the recent election of a charismatic new leader, Ivana Bacik.
Sinn Féin’s flagship issue is housing. As the Irish population grows and grows, due to immigration from outside the state and fewer young people emigrating, both the rental and sales markets are very tight. Dublin is hugely expensive; this might be the subject of a future article. But Sinn Féin keep promising to do something about it – and to be fair, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have had every opportunity in government to build social housing, penalise second homes and homes standing empty, and to encourage developers to build more, but are making remarkably little headway.
Meanwhile, Mary Lou McDonald is the leader of the opposition and is therefore often interviewed for TV news. I’ve been exasperated by her on several occasions, notably when discussing Covid, where in one breath she complains that the government is not doing enough to protect its citizens, and in the next, calls for an end to lockdown restrictions that are crippling businesses. She’s not been willing to say how Sinn Féin would have handled things better.
But, back to Northern Ireland. It’s likely that Unionist members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) won’t be taking their seats at Stormont until the British government makes some changes to the Northern Ireland protocol, which we know it can’t really do. The Conservative government blithely signed up to a deal, thinking it could renegotiate it later because nobody will want to upset such a big player as the United Kingdom. It is going to have its world view adjusted.
Also needing a wake-up call are the Northern Ireland Unionists, who need to understand that the Westminster government doesn’t really care about them unless they are needed to prop up a thin Tory majority, as they were under Theresa May. There may be a reason why the term ‘loyalists’ has gone out of fashion when the loyalty only works one way.
Border Poll and Brexit
So, how near are we to a ‘border poll’ on Irish reunification? Well, The Northern Ireland Act 1998 states that “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”, the secretary of state shall make an order in council enabling a border poll. The poll would be held concurrently on both sides of the Irish border. So there will be a lot of focus on opinion polls over the next few years.
Right now, the numbers needed for the secretary of state to require a border poll are not in evidence north of the border, and people in the Republic do not necessarily favour re-unification. “We don’t want them”, one Irish citizen said to me recently, meaning the disaffected Unionists who would become Irish against their will. People are afraid of sectarian violence being brought to the streets of Dublin. But with Brexit in the equation, we can expect the Northern Ireland economy to continue doing better than the rest of the UK because of its strengthening trade links with Ireland, which may have an impact on even the Unionist vote. Many voters might realise that economically they could be better off as Irish and European citizens than as subjects of Her Majesty.
If Unionist MLAs refuse to sit at Stormont, despite picking up their salaries, they may be conniving in their own irrelevance, as important decisions remain unmade and voters become frustrated that the people whom they voted to represent them refuse to do so.
Unlike the Brexit debacle, there is an opportunity for the shape of any new jurisdiction to emerge before people are asked to vote. Politicians in the Republic are talking about continuing the dual passport arrangements so that those who want to remain British can do so. There is much discussion of taxation, because there is a view that we pay more tax here in the Republic, which we probably do, but we also benefit from some much less expensive items – like university fees, which are about €3,000 per annum here.
The NHS is also a big concern. Healthcare in the Republic is more expensive and more fragmented in Ireland, although the government is making steps to improve the situation in a scheme known as Sláintecare, which could be accelerated to facilitate re-unification. The Northern Irish should also look at the higher salaries in the Republic, and the better state pension provision.
If I were McDonald, I would be looking at the economics holistically and persuading those less-aligned voters that being part of Ireland is in their best interests, as well as taking advice from German politicians on how they handled their reunification. It would be a mammoth undertaking, but perhaps the EU, and the Irish-American lobby that was happy to pay for IRA bombs and bullets, might be prepared to chip in to the cost of a United Ireland.
Meanwhile arguments about the Brexit Deal and the protocol rumble on. The UK government is threatening to renege on the agreement that it heralded as “a great deal” on Christmas Eve 2020. Sometimes I wonder how many of Johnson’s government have even been to Northern Ireland, it seems so peripheral to their interests. I suspect those in power in Westminster would probably prefer it if somebody would rid them of this troublesome province. Sinn Féin would be happy to help them with that.