Irish Politics, not for the Feint hearted: Sinn Fein to lead Stormont for the first time in 100 years
Claiming that a specific event is “making history” might feel redundant these days when we seem to have a new historical event every month. However, in the case of the general election in Northern Ireland, those words certainly feel true.
After the votes came in last Friday, Sinn Fein secured 27 seats to the Democratic Unionist Party’s 24. This means for the first time in Northern Irish history, the biggest party in Stormont, and subsequently the First Minister, are nationalists.
No-one should understate the significance of this moment. Even before examining what it means practically for Northern Ireland, just the symbolic value of a nationalist First Minister after a century of unionism in power is enormous. Nationalists are no longer deputies in the shadow of the Westminster loyal DUP.
It should be noted the roles of First Minister and Deputy are largely equal in power. However, the image of a republican as First Minister holds great weight for both nationalists and unionists.
This victory goes against the foundation of Northern Ireland. And that isn’t an exaggeration. As the votes counted, Lewis Goodall reminded us that “Northern Ireland was literally designed, its borders were designed… so there would be an in-built unionist majority”. It comes on the back of years of repressing Catholics’ right to vote and gerrymandering to ensure a constant unionist majority. Before introducing a single policy or making any political move, Sinn Fein pushed back against 100 years of status quo in just one night.
The victory of Sinn Fein places party vice president Michelle O’Neill as the upcoming new First Minister. While headlines called her a “pregnant schoolgirl” at first (a disappointingly sexist angle that papers thankfully revised), O’Neill boasts a rather impressive resume.
Born to a republican family, she was elected as an MLA for Mid-Ulster in 2007. She held onto the position even when she began as Mayor of Dungannon and South Tyrone in 2010. She was the first woman to take on the role. O’Neill went on to serve as minister for agriculture in 2011 before taking on the notoriously challenging position of health minister in 2015.
O’Neill’s swift and ambitious response-including a ten-year plan to modernise the health system- was impressive and undoubtedly part of what helped her rise over more senior colleagues to the role of party leader in the North in 2017. As Deputy, O’Neill led the party through power-sharing talks after Stormont collapsed. A younger face with no direct ties to IRA violence, O’Neill represents a new kind of Sinn Fein for future generations.
O’Neill may not be perfect; her attendance at a 2000-person funeral in 2021 earned her a fair amount of criticism for breaking COVID restrictions. But her political career has proven her potential to be a strong-willed, pragmatic leader. She certainly has the tenacity and fire for politics, as well as a willingness to work with all parties. Her promise was to commit to being “a first minister for all”. Now is her chance to prove herself.
It’s worth noting that Sinn Fein’s victory is just as much due to unionism’s failings as a rise of republicanism. Support for the leading unionist party – the Democratic Unionists – has noticeably dropped since 2016; the party saw a 6.3% decrease in votes from May 2017.
Brexit stands as the main culprit behind this drop, an issue that cost the DUP two groups of voters. First, the hardline unionists blamed the DUP for not stopping Boris Johnson’s Northern Ireland protocol. The protocol would put a trade border in the Irish sea between Britain and Northern Ireland, weakening the union between Northern Ireland and Britain.
And secondly, the pro-remain unionists feel the DUP dragged them into a move they never agreed to. Especially since Northern Ireland largely voted remain. Both groups looked to other parties, leaving the DUP high and dry and Sinn Fein in prime position.
While the DUP built their campaign around the issue of an Irish border, Sinn Fein’s manifesto for this election had merged their commitment to reunification with a plethora of everyday problems. Party leader Mary Lou MacDonald stressed the need for balance here. She emphasised that their commitment to reunification does not mean they disregard “the lived realities of people”.
O’Neill echoed these concerns. During the BBC leaders’ debate, she pushed for a reform of the health system and practical, long term solutions to the cost of living crisis. It was a wise decision and undoubtedly helped swing the vote in their favour. However, this commitment to “bread and butter issues” has not banished the thought of reunification from anyone’s mind. And now it is one of the first questions on people’s minds.
This isn’t the first time Northern Ireland’s future in the UK has been called into question. The six counties remain a crucial sticking point in Brexit negotiations, with unionists adamantly refusing an Irish sea trade border. Sinn Fein’s victory has shaken the union even more. O’Neill, in her speech on election night, did address unification. She emphasised the need for a healthy discussion between both sides. Her election speech invited those who disagree with unification “at this time” to enter into a conversation with them, committing to working for a better future “for each and every one of us”.
As outlined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the reunification of Ireland ultimately lies with the people, stating that Northern Ireland “shall not cease to be [part of the UK] without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll”. Rather than be’ ‘divisive’ as DUP leader Jeffery Donaldson called it, the process couldn’t be more democratic.
The most recent border poll was held in 1973, with the overwhelming majority voting to remain in the UK. However, only 1% of Catholics turned out to vote in protest. In addition, support for reunification has steadily increased.
With a nationalist party now in power in the Executive, and Sinn Fein remaining strong in the Republic, the time for preparations has never been better. Sinn Fein remains committed to a United Ireland, and O’Neill is determined to turn public opinion in its favour.
She has even begun urging the government in the Republic to do the same. She has asked the questions, “What does the health service look like in a united Ireland? What does education look like in a united Ireland?” These practical concerns pull the idea of a united Ireland from abstract fantasy to a concrete reality.
If Ireland were to reunite, it would be from the people’s will. Even if it’s not time for reunification right away, the circumstances show that it is more than the right time to start asking questions. A united Ireland might be unthinkable to some now, but so was a nationalist First Minister until last Friday.
As to be expected, not everyone is happy with the result. O’Neill and Sinn Fein are eager to see the new Executive up and running. However, the DUP has opted to block the process by refusing to nominate a Deputy First Minister. In line with the Agreement, O’Neill cannot take up her new role until the DUP appoint a Deputy.
According to Donaldson, the move is a protest against Wesminister’s Northern Ireland protocol. However, Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party have rightfully called it out for what it is; a denial of democracy and punishing the electorate for the party’s mistakes.
This is even more important in light of Stormont’s previous collapse in 2017, where power wasn’t restored again until 2020. Playing fast and loose with democracy while people across the community struggle to heat their homes highlights the DUP’s severe lack of commitment. Regardless of identity, if this is how the DUP do politics, a change was in everyone’s best interests.
The implications of this election are huge. It’s hard not to think of it as a turning point in Irish history. The line between what is and isn’t possible for Ireland is getting blurrier by the minute. No doubt, the coming weeks and months will be fraught with anticipation, anxiety, frustration and hope as the new government tries to open one way or the other. Whilst the direction Northern Ireland will go in from here is still not certain, the amount of new possibilities is heart-racing. However, one thing is almost certain; change is coming-whether Jeffrey Donaldson likes it or not.