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7 May 2022

What does Sinn Féin’s victory mean for Northern Ireland’s future?

The nationalist party should not rush to demand a border poll on a united Ireland.

By Jonathan Powell

Twenty four years ago, after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble told me that he expected Northern Irish politics to become less sectarian and more normal with traditional left and right parties replacing the old Green and Orange parties. That has not happened yet, but this week’s elections in Northern Ireland might just mark the beginning of the normalisation of politics in the province.

Sinn Féin’s victory, gaining the most seats in the assembly (27) and the right to appoint the first minister, is a remarkable historic event. But it is a symbolic event rather than a practical one involving a handover of power. The first and deputy first minister are equals – neither can act without the other – and the result has more to do with a collapse in support for the DUP (down 6.7 per cent) than a surge for Sinn Féin (up 1.1 per cent). Symbols are important, however, particularly in Northern Ireland. The province has been ruled by unionists for its entire 101-year history and the stark demonstration that it is no longer a one-party state will change attitudes to politics there. 

Perhaps even more crucial in the long term is the surge in support for the non-sectarian Alliance Party, which won 13.5 per cent of the vote. The growth of the political centre ground is likely to be reflected in the census later this year, which will probably show for the first time more Catholics than Protestants but also a substantial increase in those who reject affiliation with either tradition. If Northern Ireland can escape the trap of sectarian politics, so that identity no longer overrides all else, then the work of the Good Friday Agreement will finally be accomplished.

Unfortunately, before we reach this political nirvana, we are going to have to face yet another political crisis. The devolved institutions have been suspended for nearly half the time of their existence. And the one outcome we can be certain of is that they will be suspended again after this election because Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, will not go back into government until the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit agreement has “been dealt with”. The fact he will now have to play second fiddle to republicans will make it even harder for him to persuade DUP supporters that the party should make concessions to resuscitate the devolved institutions. The risk is that we face months of talks followed by yet another election if they fail. This political crisis will not mark a return to the three decades of the Troubles but it may well lead to heightened rhetoric and more street violence during the “white nights” of May, June and July as young boys come out on the street to protest. 

There is no magic answer to this crisis, which has largely been caused by the outworking of Brexit and the way it was implemented by Boris Johnson. The unionists have a point when they complain about the imposition of a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK by the British government and the impact that has on their identity. They have no alternative to propose, however, because there has to be a border somewhere after the UK’s departure from the European single market and the customs unions and six years of effort have failed to produce a workable alternative to the protocol. Even the DUP has not proposed a border on the island of Ireland because it knows it is unacceptable to the majority in the province and would be catastrophic for the Good Friday Agreement.

The British and Irish governments will have to make a renewed effort to bring the parties back to the negotiating table and make rapid progress. Experience shows the longer the crisis is allowed to go on, the harder it is to resolve. This cannot be left to an underpowered Northern Ireland Secretary and No 10 will have to be involved as well. It will have to discuss all the outstanding issues, including the Irish language, as well as the protocol. It is embarrassing to have to ask the EU to make further concessions on the practical working of the protocol to help the DUP dig itself out of its own hole, but it is the statesmanlike thing to do.

It needs to be made as hard as possible for the DUP to refuse a deal. Jeffrey Donaldson will have to brave the attacks of Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice to his right and the Ulster Unionist Party to his left and settle for changes that make the protocol work in practice rather than replace it. And Sinn Féin will actually have to want the institutions of Stormont, against which it has fought for a century, to be re-established enough to make concessions to the unionists. During the campaign the party dialled down its demand for an early poll on uniting Ireland and it will need to maintain this approach if it wants a deal with the unionists despite the demands of its base.

Above all, Johnson must stop playing politics with the Northern Ireland peace process to bribe his eurosceptic backbenchers and ensure his political survival. It is good news that the UK government appears to have retreated from its threat to legislate unilaterally to change the protocol, but it is going to have to go much further in its retreat to remedy the damage it has already inflicted and to de-dramatise the issue of identity. Even then, I am not optimistic that it will be easy to revive the devolved institutions, not just immediately but possibly ever.

This week’s election is historic and it could perhaps mark the beginning of the normalisation of Northern Irish politics. If it does, we will have to look again at the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement on power sharing and forced coalitions of the unwilling that depend on politicians identifying with one of the two sectarian camps. But that will only be possible if we can first surmount the immediate political crisis caused by Brexit and the revival of the issue of identity in Northern Ireland.

Jonathan Powell was chief British government negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997-2007

[See also: Is a united Ireland now inevitable?]

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This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer