Sinn Fein Surges in Local Elections, Revealing a Divided Northern Ireland
The Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, cemented its status as the largest party in Northern Ireland in local election results counted over the weekend. But rather than break a political deadlock in the North, Sinn Fein’s striking gains may harden the sectarian divide that has long complicated its fragile government.
Sinn Fein gained 39 seats, for a total of 144 council members who oversee services like fixing roads and collecting trash. The flagship pro-unionist party, the Democratic Unionists, managed to hold on to their existing total of 122 seats, a mediocre result that is nevertheless viewed by some in their ranks as vindication of the party’s refusal to enter a power-sharing government since last year.
The combination of a surging Sinn Fein and a stalled, but defiant, Democratic Unionist Party, or D.U.P., gives neither side much incentive to compromise in restoring Northern Ireland’s assembly, which collapsed over a year ago after the D.U.P. pulled out in a dispute over the post-Brexit trade rules that govern the territory.
“The picture is one of unionism and nationalism both more hard-line than ever,” said Katy Hayward, a professor of politics at Queen’s University in Belfast. “That doesn’t bode too well for the prospect of power sharing, even if it does get restarted.”
The chronic political dysfunction cast a long shadow over last month’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. That treaty ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles, by creating a government that balances power between the unionists, who favor remaining part of the United Kingdom, and the nationalists, who favor a united Irish Republic.
But the government has been paralyzed for 15 months over the unionists’ claims that the post-Brexit trade arrangements, known at the Northern Ireland protocol, drive a wedge between the North and the rest of the United Kingdom. They called for the British government to all but overturn the protocol.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain struck a deal with the European Union in February that modified many of the rules, and he called on the unionists to re-enter the assembly. But the Democratic Unionists have refused, arguing that the changes fall short of the root-and-branch overhaul that they had demanded.
Their objection has done nothing to prevent the agreement, known as the Windsor Framework, from being implemented. But it rallied the party’s core voters, who feel increasingly isolated in Northern Ireland, where demographic trends are moving against them. The Catholic population, which tends to be nationalist, has overtaken the Protestant population, which tends to be unionist.
While the Democratic Unionists treaded water in the elections, the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party lost 21 seats, a bruising setback that analysts said would discredit its less antagonistic approach to power sharing. The Democratic Unionists also fended off a challenge from the even more hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice.
Similarly, the other major Irish nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which does not have Sinn Fein’s vestigial ties to the violent resistance of the Irish Republican Army, lost 20 seats in the election. That leaves Sinn Fein as the overwhelming force among nationalist voters.
Sinn Fein first emerged as the largest party in legislative elections last year, a victory that gave it the right to name a first minister in the government, with the runner-up D.U.P. naming a deputy first minister. Sinn Fein’s inability to do that because of the Democratic Unionists’ intransigence has frustrated its voters, who analysts said flocked to the polls in large numbers in these elections to register their disapproval.
“Sinn Fein did better than anyone predicted they would, even Sinn Fein,” Professor Hayward said, noting that it was the first election in which the overall nationalist vote was larger than the overall unionist vote.
Until now, Sinn Fein has campaigned heavily on kitchen-table issues like housing and health care, eschewing a direct appeal for Irish unification. But headlines in Irish nationalist papers this week called on the British government to clarify the conditions under which a poll on Irish unification would be held.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, Britain’s top official for Northern Ireland must call a referendum if there is clear evidence that people favor breaking away from the United Kingdom and becoming part of a united Ireland. But there is no precise mechanism for measuring that sentiment.
The issue of unification is also likely to come up more frequently in the Republic of Ireland, where Sinn Fein comfortably outpolls either of its rivals, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, which currently govern in a unity coalition.
“They’re now really on the rise in both North and South,” said Diarmaid Ferriter, a professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. “They’re not big enough to govern on their own in the South, but they’re heading in that direction.”
British officials seem resigned to a continuation of the paralysis, with some predicting there won’t be any movement toward a restored government until the fall. But Sinn Fein is pressing its advantage: The party’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, accepted an invitation from Buckingham Palace to attend the coronation of King Charles III, declaring on Twitter that times had changed.
The unionists, on the other hand, are in a familiar cul-de-sac: opposed to the status quo, but unable to propose any viable alternatives.
If they continue to spurn the government, analysts say they will continue to bleed support in the broader electorate. But if they drop their opposition, the D.U.P.’s leaders fear they will be outflanked by more hard-line unionist parties.
“There’s a bit of a sense of a time warp in Northern Ireland,” Professor Ferriter said. “The D.U.P. is not going to succeed in renegotiating the deal. London is not remotely interested and has already moved on. We could be in for a long, hot and boring summer.”