Will Sinn Féin’s victories lead to a united Ireland?


Sinn Féin has many reasons to celebrate. The party made history earlier this month, winning 29% of the vote in the Northern Ireland general election, 7.7% more than its closest political rivals, a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) exasperated whose nativist and bigoted campaign failed to secure victory.

To the south, polls indicate that Sinn Féin is the most popular political party in the Republic of Ireland. With a chance to run governments in two jurisdictions simultaneously, the face of traditional Irish republicanism is smiling.

The recent Republican triumph in the North was not supposed to happen. As one BBC commentator pointed out, Northern Ireland was “literally designedto prevent a Nationalist victory. Ulster has nine counties, three of which remain in the Irish state. Had they been returned at the time of partition, the small authoritarian state of Orange and its “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people” would not have been possible.

Much later, in 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, political unionism bet that “consent” in Northern Ireland would strengthen the union, resulting in the defeat of republicanism. A stipulation that any potential future border polls must be called by the UK government’s secretary for Northern Ireland, with no clear criteria in place for doing so, also didn’t hurt. A democratic path to a united Ireland is possible – in the words of Westminster, when they feel like it.

In 2022, the unionist vote is divided into three. The hard-line traditional Unionist voice and the relatively timid Ulster Unionist Party won 7.6% and 11.2% respectively. Next to them is the supposedly neutral Alliance party, which has enjoyed a boost in votes, mostly in affluent neighborhoods around Belfast. With 13.5%, Alliance is now the third largest party in Northern Ireland, a first for a party that ticks “other” and is therefore limited in its ability to govern.

Power-sharing requires nationalists and unionists to appoint the first and deputy prime minister respectively, who both enjoy equal status. This model made politics a kind of competition between communities; if one group gets resources, another must too. A further consequence of this arrangement is that one side can shut everything down, as Sinn Féin did in January 2017, following a dispute over the DUP’s handling of a political scandal. Northern Ireland had no government for the next three years.

The modern DUP is an alliance between former far-right anti-Good Friday members of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Paisleyite Free Presbyterians, the latter of whom believe in four-thousand-year-old dinosaurs. Some types of UUPs within the DUP, such as former leader Arlene Foster and current leader Jeffrey Donaldson, were initially ambivalent about the Northern Ireland Protocol, which gives the six counties access to the European single market. . Then the DUP base dragged them to the right.

Donaldson is now refusing to appoint a deputy prime minister until vague requests to change the protocol are addressed. It presents the current arrangement as a diminution of the union. Boris Johnson – who told the DUP in 2018 that no UK government ‘could or should put a border on the Irish Sea’ and then negotiated one – could use the situation to scour Europe. In response, the EU effectively threatened a trade war if the UK tried to unilaterally change the protocol in violation of international law.

For some Unionists whose identity is inextricably linked to British colonial rule over Ireland, any northward shift amounts to an erosion of Britishness. The Parades Commission, created in 1998 to prevent Nationalist and Unionist marches from behaving antagonistically, is a frequent source of outrage.

In 2012 and 2013, unionists and loyalists rioted when Belfast City Hall voted to limit Union Jack theft to eighteen days a year. Expressing her opposition to an Irish language law in 2017, Arlene Foster said: “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back.” Last March, the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force staged a fake bomb attack on Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney after he withdrew his support for the Good Friday Agreement twelve months earlier.

Siege mentality notwithstanding, the DUP is correct in identifying the potential dividing effect of a border. Throughout the Troubles, many people in the Republic of Ireland saw Northern Irish as a completely separate identity, precisely because nationalists in the six counties found themselves separated from the South.

This perspective has endured in parts of Irish society: when Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness ran for President of Ireland in 2011, a member of the public during a televised debate told him he had just ‘another country. The worst fear for the DUP, with all its carnivalesque pronouncements of Britishness towards an increasingly indifferent ‘continent’, is a similar kind of rejection.

Fortunately for trade unionism, partitionist attitudes in the South ultimately made no difference: Northern nationalists never lost their Irish identity, thanks in part to cultural institutions like the Gaelic Athletic Association, family ties in the South and an all-Ireland economy facilitated by the Good Friday Agreement. A Unionist identity that means more than just token unity with Britain can retain its British identity after constitutional change. But until the DUP realizes this or loses its influence, Northern Ireland is a dead end.

Some optimistic pundits have been keen to describe the historic emergence of a “new” way of doing politics in Northern Ireland, sidestepping the nationalist-unionist divide and perhaps even rendering power-sharing obsolete. The Alliance Party claims to represent people exasperated by bigotry. Aligned with the Lib Dems, the Alliance says it wants politics to take care of ‘bread and butter’ issues like the economy, healthcare, infrastructure and more.

Despite talk of a glorious and shared future, the Alliance advocates neoliberal economic policies that will produce a more alienated and atomized society – the party, for example, recently voiced support for undermining strike action by opening avenues for buses to inconvenienced drivers.

Along the same lines, their “neither orange nor green” stance presents bigotry as an individualized bias that can be overcome with enough well-meaning cross-community initiatives, not something structural in nature, built into the state of society. Northern Ireland and institutionalized by the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement. (Think Bob Geldof or “Zombie” of the Cranberries.) This appeals to the establishment in Dublin and London, which for political reasons avoids acknowledging the historic grievances of the Irish Republicans.

In 2019, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the Alliance at its pre-conference dinner, commenting that it was “a real shame” that issues like marriage equality and abortion rights – blocked by the DUP despite overwhelming public support – had been “caught up in the struggle between unionism and nationalism, orange and green. Following the recent Alliance result, Varadkar hailed the “growing common ground” which presents a “opportunity for a new Northern Ireland in the future”.

Here’s a fact that some people don’t like to acknowledge: politics in Northern Ireland is by nature a zero-sum game. Reunification takes place or not, and neutrality is about supporting the status quo, that is, the continued existence of Northern Ireland, which was explicitly created to deny the democratic will of the Irish people.

Politicians who claim not to take a position on the national question are dishonest. Naomi Long, Alliance Leader believes “England is not now and never was or could be in Ireland.” His party supports the expenditure of public funds by recognizing the “service” of British soldiers in Northern Ireland. It is not neutrality.

Many Alliance voters are young liberal trade unionists from wealthy neighborhoods surrounding Belfast, many of whom understandably feel embarrassed by the DUP. The Green and Labor parties in the South attract a similar cohort: upwardly mobile under-35s who ultimately support the status quo but want to feel good doing it. Some of the growing circles just want the institutions of Northern Ireland to work.

Others lean towards hybrid identities, more nuanced than the extremes pushed by the DUP and loyalism. They naturally lean towards the trade unionists, but can be persuaded to vote for reunification if it makes economic sense.

Sooner or later, Alliance will be obliged to formally declare its position on the constitutional question. It is likely that the party will support the union. However, a sheer volume of transfers from other socially liberal parties like the Social Democratic and Labor Party and Sinn Féin could push the Alliance to let members vote according to their preference, as the Tories did with Brexit.

As Seán Byers pointed out in an article for Grandstand, the policies of the DUP have in the past been largely aligned with the logic of capital and the neoliberal transformation of Northern Ireland. From now on, the party opposes it: access to the single market is beneficial for the Northern Irish economy. As with their support for Brexit, an assertion of British sovereignty, the DUP’s current opposition to the protocol could extract money from well-to-do unionist voters and small ‘u’s most receptive to financial arguments for a united Ireland.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin presents itself to the Irish business class, giving up on effectively claiming to be a vanguard party in the South in recent years. Pearse Doherty, the party’s finance spokesman, went so far as to state publicly that “big business and investors know Sinn Féin won’t come after them”.

An obsession with symbolic representations of British exceptionalism blinded political unionism into adopting political positions that accelerated reunification. The DUP may soon have to ask themselves what it means to be British in a united Ireland.


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