Will Sinn Féin’s Wins Lead to a United Ireland?

Sinn Féin’s victory in Ireland’s recent Assembly elections is the first time a nationalist party has been the largest in Northern Ireland. The win makes a unity referendum more likely than ever.

Deputy first minister of Northern Ireland and Irish republican Sinn Féin party member Michelle O'Neill takes a photograph with party president Mary Lou McDonald, May 7, 2022. (Paul Faith / AFP via Getty Images)

Sinn Féin has plenty of reasons to celebrate. The party made history earlier this month, taking 29 percent of the vote in Northern Ireland’s general election, 7.7 percent more than their nearest political rivals, an exasperated Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) whose nativist and sectarian 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 lead governments in two jurisdictions simultaneously, the face of mainstream Irish republicanism is smiling.

The recent republican triumph in the North wasn’t supposed to happen. As one BBC commentator pointed out, Northern Ireland was “literally designed” to prevent a nationalist victory. Ulster has nine counties, three of which remain in the Irish state. Had they been surrendered at the time of partition, the authoritarian Orange statelet and its “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people” wouldn’t have been possible.

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

Constitution and Identity

In 2022, the unionist vote is split three ways. The hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice and comparatively timid Ulster Unionist Party picked up 7.6 percent and 11.2 percent, respectively. Adjacent to them is the purportedly neutral Alliance Party, which enjoyed a surge in votes, mostly from affluent areas surrounding Belfast. At 13.5 percent, 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 nominate respective first and deputy first ministers, both of whom enjoy equal standing. This model has rendered politics something of a competition between communities; if one group gets resources, another must too. An additional consequence of this arrangement is that one side can bring everything to a halt, as Sinn Féin did in January 2017, following a dispute over how the DUP dealt with a political scandal. Northern Ireland had no government for the ensuing three years.

The modern DUP is an alliance between hard-right, anti–Good Friday former members of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Paisleyite Free Presbyterians, the latter of whom believe in four-thousand-year-old dinosaurs. Some UUP types within the DUP, like 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’s grassroots dragged them to the right.

Donaldson now refuses to nominate a deputy first minister until vague demands to alter the protocol are addressed. He presents the current arrangement as diminishing of the union. Boris Johnson — who told the DUP in 2018 that no British government “could or should put a border down the Irish sea,” then proceeded to negotiate one — may leverage the situation to take a dig at Europe. In response, the EU has effectively threatened a trade war if the UK attempts to unilaterally alter the protocol in breach of international law.

For some unionists whose identity is inextricably linked to Britain’s colonial dominance of Ireland, any change to the north is tantamount to an erosion of Britishness. The Parades Commission, set up in 1998 to avoid both nationalist and unionist marches behaving antagonistically, is a frequent source of outrage.

In 2012 and 2013, unionists and loyalists rioted when Belfast City Hall voted to limit flying the Union Jack to eighteen days a year. Voicing her opposition to an Irish language act in 2017, Arlene Foster said, “If you feed a crocodile, it will keep coming back for more.” Last March, the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force staged a fake bomb attack on Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs, Simon Coveney, after withdrawing support for the Good Friday Agreement twelve months previously.

Siege mentality notwithstanding, the DUP is correct in identifying the potential divisive effect of a border. Throughout the Troubles, many people in the Republic of Ireland regarded 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 some parts of Irish society: when Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness ran for president of Ireland in 2011, a member of the audience at a televised debate told him he was from a different country. The worst fear for the DUP, with all their carnivalesque declarations of Britishness to an increasingly indifferent “mainland,” is a similar kind of rejection.

Luckily for unionism, Southern partitionist attitudes ultimately made no difference: Northern nationalists never lost their Irishness, in part thanks 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 mere symbolic unity with Britain can hold on to its Britishness after constitutional change. But until the DUP either realizes this or loses influence, Northern Ireland is doomed to gridlock.

A “Third Way”

Some optimistic pundits have been keen to describe the historic emergence of a “new” way of doing politics in Northern Ireland, eschewing the nationalist-unionist divide and perhaps even making power sharing obsolete. The Alliance Party says it represents people who are exasperated by sectarianism. Aligned with the Lib Dems, Alliance claims it wants politics to deal with “bread and butter” issues like the economy, health care, infrastructure, and so on.

Despite talk of a glorious, shared future, Alliance advocates neoliberal economic policies that will produce a more alienated, more atomized society — the party, for example, recently expressed support for undermining a strike action by opening bus lanes to inconvenienced drivers.

In a similar vein, their “neither Orange nor Green” position presents sectarianism as an individualized prejudice that can be overcome with enough well-meaning cross-community initiatives, not something of a structural nature, built into the state of Northern Ireland and institutionalized through the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement. (Think Bob Geldof or “Zombie” by the Cranberries.) This appeals to the establishment in Dublin and London, who, for political reasons, avoid acknowledging the historic grievances of Irish republicans.

In 2019, then Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed Alliance at its preconference dinner, commenting that it was “a real shame” issues like marriage equality and abortion rights — blocked by the DUP despite overwhelming public support — had been “caught up in the tussle between unionism and nationalism, Orange and Green.” In the wake of Alliance’s recent result, Varadkar lauded the “growing middle ground” that presents an “opportunity for a new Northern Ireland into the future.”

A Zero-Sum Game

Here’s a fact some people don’t like to acknowledge: politics in Northern Ireland is by its nature a zero-sum game. Reunification happens or it doesn’t, and neutrality amounts to support of the status quo — i.e., 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 view on the national question are disingenuous. Alliance leader Naomi Long believes “England is not now and never has been or could be in Ireland.” Her party supports spending public money acknowledging the “service” of British soldiers in Northern Ireland. This is not neutrality.

Many Alliance voters are young, liberal unionists from wealthy areas surrounding Belfast, many of whom understandably feel embarrassed by the DUP. The Southern Green and Labour parties attract a similar cohort: upwardly mobile under-thirty-fives who ultimately support the status quo but want to feel good while doing so. Some of the growing middle just want Northern Ireland’s institutions to function.

Others are moving toward hybrid identities, more nuanced than the extremes pushed by the DUP and loyalism. They naturally lean unionist, but may be convinced to vote for reunification if it makes economic sense.

Sooner or later, Alliance will be forced to formally declare its position on the constitutional question. It’s likely the party will support the union. A considerable volume of transfers from other socially liberal parties like Social Democratic and Labour Party and Sinn Féin, however, may nudge Alliance into letting members vote according to their preference, like the Tories did with Brexit.

As Seán Byers pointed out in an article for Tribune, the DUP’s policies have in the past largely aligned with the logic of capital and the neoliberal transformation of Northern Ireland. Now the party is at odds with it: access to the single market is beneficial to Northern Ireland’s economy. As with their support of Brexit, an assertion of British sovereignty, the DUP’s current opposition to the protocol may take money from the affluent, small-“u” unionist voters most amenable to financial arguments for a united Ireland.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin is pitching itself to Ireland’s business class, rowing back from effectively claiming to be a vanguard party in the South in recent years. Pearse Doherty, the party’s spokesperson for finance, has gone as far as publicly declaring that “big business and investors know Sinn Féin won’t go after them.”

An obsession with symbolic representations of British exceptionalism blindsided political unionism into adopting policy positions that have sped up reunification. The DUP may soon have to ask itself what it means to be British in a united Ireland.