Sinn Fein Is Now in the Driver’s Seat on Both Sides of the Irish Border

World Politics Review, 10.05.2022
Peter McLoughlin, profesor de historia política contemporánea (Queen’s University-Belfast)

Sinn Fein’s historic victory in Northern Ireland’s elections last week, which made it the largest party in the state’s devolved parliament, is significant in numerous ways. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s 101-year history, a nationalist party is now dominant in a state that was specifically designed to ensure a pro-Union majority.

But Sinn Fein is not simply a nationalist party. Having originated as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, or IRA—the foremost paramilitary in the Northern Ireland conflict—it is a republican party that once supported armed struggle and vowed to destroy the very state it could now lead.

Of course, Sinn Fein has transformed itself since the IRA cease-fire of 1994, but the reunification of Ireland continues to be its raison d’être. And it appears closer than ever to realizing this aim, with polls consistently suggesting that it is also the most popular party in the Republic of Ireland. Thus, Sinn Fein may soon lead governments in both parts of Ireland, strengthening the resonance of its call for a referendum on reunification, but also allowing it to direct politics in the two jurisdictions in ways that would ease their integration.

This does not mean that a united Ireland is imminent, however, as many obstacles to that outcome remain.

First, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, or GFA, that brought an end to the Northern Ireland conflict in 1998, a referendum on unification can only be held with the approval of the British government. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government will resist this, as would the current Irish government, though that would obviously change if—as polls suggest—Sinn Fein eventually takes power in Dublin as well.

Second, the GFA also stipulates the need for separate referenda to be held in the two parts of Ireland, with winning majorities required in both to unify the country. But Sinn Fein’s surging support on either side of the Irish border does not necessarily mean that majorities in each part of the island would vote to reunite. As a left-wing party, Sinn Fein attracts support not only for its nationalist republican positions, but also for its stances on bread-and-butter issues. Its calls to address the rising cost of living in the Northern Ireland election resonated with voters last week, and it won votes in the Republic of Ireland’s most recent elections in 2020 by urging radical action to resolve its housing crisis. Not all the voters that Sinn Fein attracts through its socio-economic policies agree with its advocacy of Irish unification.

Finally, to exercise power in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein will need to strike an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, which finished second in last week’s election, and this is where things get complicated. According to the GFA, Northern Ireland’s devolved government can only assume its functions when a power-sharing arrangement is in place between the top-finishing nationalist and unionist parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP. However, the DUP is refusing to give its green light to the necessary arrangement in protest over the trade arrangements for Northern Ireland that were negotiated as part of the British government’s withdrawal from the European Union.

One of the thorniest aspects of Brexit was where to place the customs border between the U.K. and the EU. Because the Republic of Ireland remains an EU member, Brexit threatened to create controls along the border marking the line of Ireland’s partition, thereby undermining the GFA, which was designed to remove all controls from the border to help neutralize its effects on day-to-day life. A return to border checks, as were necessary during the Northern Ireland conflict, would have particularly frustrated Northern Ireland’s nationalist community, as well as those who live in Ireland near the southern side of the border, as many people from both sides travel across it daily for work, school and the like.

Demographic and electoral trends in both parts of Ireland suggest that unionists will ultimately have to return to the negotiating table facing an even stronger Sinn Fein.

To avoid the inevitable tensions that new border controls would produce, it was instead decided that, for trading purposes, Northern Ireland would effectively remain under EU jurisdiction when the U.K. left the bloc. This obviated the need for border checks between the two parts of Ireland, but it in turn meant enforcing custom controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain to ensure conformity with EU regulations.

The DUP argues that this arrangement effectively creates a border separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K., thereby undermining the Union with Britain, which is the DUP’s own raison d’être. It insists that the British government’s Brexit deal be changed before it will return to a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.

Of course, significant changes to the Brexit deal are unlikely. After all, it took nearly three years of negotiations between Brussels and London to agree on terms for the U.K.’s departure that would not undermine the GFA. But as long as the DUP continues with its protest, Northern Ireland will face a governmental stalemate.

This will not dampen Sinn Fein’s sense of achievement or its determination to continue pressing for Irish reunification. Even if it cannot give its new majority status in Northern Ireland practical effect, Sinn Fein will seek to use its increasing influence in the Republic of Ireland. If it can win power there—elections must take place before February 2025—the party will still be in a strong position to shape politics in Northern Ireland through Irish membership of the EU and Dublin’s relationship with the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden. Indeed, Biden’s repeated and strong support for the GFA is a key reason why the British government already feels obliged to press the DUP to end its protest and accept the new political realities in Northern Ireland.

Understandably, unionists remain deeply anxious about the future of Northern Ireland, and Sinn Fein’s demands for referenda on Irish reunification only fuel their fears. Thus, the DUP may refuse to cooperate for some time yet. But even if it does, demographic and electoral trends in both parts of Ireland suggest that unionists will ultimately have to return to the negotiating table facing an even stronger Sinn Fein.

The same logic applies with respect to the U.K. Sinn Fein won an electoral majority in 1918 in pre-partition Ireland, which at the time was part of the U.K. London responded by denying the election’s legitimacy and suppressing Sinn Fein, triggering a violent conflict that lasted until 1921. Only then did the British government agree to negotiations that delivered Irish independence from Britain. However, Sinn Fein’s lack of support in the north of Ireland—where pro-Union Protestants were strongest—was cited by London as a reason to partition the island and keep much of that area under British rule.

The GFA made huge steps to right the historical wrongs of the 1918-1921 conflict. However, when it was signed in 1998, Sinn Fein had limited support in Northern Ireland and virtually no influence in the Republic of Ireland. Now it is the leading political force in both jurisdictions. This does not mean that all other parties must accede to Sinn Fein’s agenda for Irish reunification, but it does require both unionists and the British government to recognize that the party speaks for a growing proportion of the Irish people, north and south. Its views on the future of Ireland must be taken very seriously in order to avoid repeating the mistakes made in the past.

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