On the 5th of May 2022, 41 years after the death of Hunger Striker and Sinn Féin MP Bobby Sands, Northern Ireland’s local elections returned a history-making win for his party.
Sinn Féin is now the largest political party in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, meaning that for the first time a Nationalist party will hold the position of First Minister since the creation of the Northern Irish state in 1921.
Six Years of Limbo
The last six years have left Northern Ireland in limbo, and in many ways it will stay there. The calamity that was the Brexit Referendum put the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) that resolved the Troubles under more pressure than it has yet experienced. After three years of negotiations, the resulting Brexit Agreement addresses the unique position of Northern Ireland in the Northern Ireland Protocol.
As far as Brexit negotiations were concerned, a ‘hard border’ between the North and South were a threat to the North-South cooperation enshrined in the GFA. One of the benefits of mutual European Union (EU) membership was that the border had been, up until now, functionally non-existent. Roads and buildings cross the border, people live in Northern Ireland and work in the Republic, and vice versa.
Free movement of people between the two countries has played a major role in the de-escalation of tensions. While both the EU and the UK government reiterated their commitment to the GFA prior to the instigation of negotiations, during and after, the compatibility of the GFA with Brexit remains in question.
In leaving the EU, the issues of a customs border overshadowed all other impacts of Brexit. The loudest voices in this discussion has been the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who have always had a difficult relationship with the GFA.
The DUP was late to accepting the GFA, only signing on in order to assume the Executive in 2007. After propping up the May Conservative government in the 2017 elections – in return for 1.3 Billion GBP – the DUP have had a difficult time coming to terms with the Brexit Agreement.
In seeking to protect the North-South cooperation strand of the GFA, the Northern Ireland Protocol designated the customs border in the Irish Sea, and from the perspective of Unionists, this threatens the principle of consent, also enshrined in the GFA. Northern Ireland will continue to hold a different relationship with the EU, than other regions in the UK, threatening their place in the Union.
They have accused PM Boris Johnson of betraying the trust of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. In his own words, a customs border in the Irish Sea would happen “over his dead body”.
Now, after the 2022 election, the DUP are refusing to form government in order to force Johnson to scrap the Protocol.
Where does the 2022 election leave Stormont?
Sinn Féin, in holding onto their 27 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, are the largest party in Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly.
As such, it is their right – Michelle O’Neill’s right – to form the senior role in the power-sharing executive. The DUP, who lost 3 seats, should be assuming their deputy role. It remains to be seen if this will happen.
Sinn Féin has held onto their seats, increasing their share of the vote by 1.1% since the 2017 elections chasing the increase in the voting pool. The biggest story of the election, however, is the loss of support for Unionist politics across the board. The DUP decreased their first preference votes by 6.7%. Significantly, their main competition – the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) – also lost first preference votes, and a seat.
The big winners in this election is the non-sectarian Alliance Party, who picked up an additional 9 seats, increasing their vote share by 4.5%. The Alliance party have thus doubled their representation in Stormont from the 2017 Assembly elections. In comparison, this is the third election which has seen the DUP and UUP lose either vote share or seats.
Where does this leave Northern Ireland?
This election win does not mean a United Ireland tomorrow. Sinn Féin’s platform in this election focused strongly on jobs, housing, and cost of living, as did Michelle O’Neill’s acceptance speech post-election. In the words of O’Neill, people aren’t “waking up thinking about Irish Unity.”
The road to a unified Ireland is a long, and uncertain one. Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin’s leader in the Republic, has suggested a “five-year timeframe” for planning a referendum, it taking place within the next decade. MacDonald’s own platform, which saw Sinn Féin enter opposition as the biggest party in the Republic in the 2020 elections, reflected similar focus on social issues.
The process for a referendum requires a border poll to be called by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a British Cabinet appointment, on the basis of perceived majority support for Irish reunification. O’Neill has called for clarification on what metrics that majority support is measured by.
Brandon Lewis, the current Secretary, has stated that the combined electoral support for Unionist parties still (just) overshadows that for Sinn Féin and so this doesn’t indicate a majority support for revisiting the issue.
However, as Keagan Ó Guaire, Cairde Sinn Féin Branch Organiser for Melbourne highlighted when asked for comment, “parliamentary politics is neither the beginning or end of our struggle, however, at these elections, more than ever before, our communities saw us for who we are and voted for us to continue our struggle towards Irish unity.”
“The British ruling classes and hardline Unionists are so threatened by our success, so panicked that their system no longer holds us back, that they have refused to engage with us in good faith and form an Executive to improve living standards in the North.”
MacDonald echoed these statements, saying that “the history of the North of Ireland is such that it was engineered and established precisely to prevent a Michelle O’Neill from ever being in the office of First Minister so I think it’s a great marker of change”.
Banner image: Then-Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O'Neill, left, and Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin, 2018. Source: Flickr/Sinn Féin