Northern Ireland specialises in political watersheds after which nothing will supposedly ever be the same again. In the wake of the Assembly election, one British newspaper even compared the emergence of Sinn Féin as the single largest party with the Easter Rising of 1916, citing the WB Yeats poem about all being “changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born”.
It is certainly something of a turning point when Sinn Féin becomes the first nationalist party in the history of Northern Ireland to win more votes and representatives than the largest unionist party. This is so significant because the Northern Irish statelet was created 101 years ago specifically in order to guarantee a unionist and Protestant majority permanently in power.
No wonder Sinn Féin and the nationalists are cock-a-hoop after they won 27 Assembly seats and polled 250,388 first-preference votes compared with the DUP’s 25 seats and 184,000 votes. Sinn Féin can now claim the post of First Minister in any new Executive in the unlikely event of the DUP failing to veto its formation.
It is true that the election reflects the changing relationship between the nationalists and unionists or, put more crudely, between Catholics and Protestants, with the balance of power tipping further towards the former.
But it is possible to exaggerate the extent of the transformation. “The change is primarily psychological and symbolic,” says Brian Feeney, the historian and commentator, “though it is also a blow to unionist morale.” But he points out that much of the decline in the DUP vote can be explained by many of these going to the even-harder line Traditional Unionist Voice party. Such damaging unionist divisions may not be so confrontational in future elections.
Yet symbolic victories are victories all the same when the political struggle is as hard fought – and on so many fronts – as it always is in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said her party’s victory means that “we are, it now seems, on the cusp of a nationalist or a republican leading the Executive, being the first minister in the North. It’s significant because it’s a moment of equality.”
She went on to say as First Minister Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin deputy leader, would engage with unionists and “work together” to prepare for a reunified Ireland, though a border poll and Irish unity may still be a long way off.
In her declaration speech after topping the poll in Mid Ulster, O’Neill said that “today ushers in a new era which I believe presents us all with an opportunity to reimagine relationships in this society on the basis of fairness, on the basis of equality and the basis of social justice. Irrespective of religious, political or social backgrounds my commitment is to make politics work.”
Sinn Féin post-ballot speeches were conciliatory in tone, but they are also coded references to the two inter-related but distinct confrontations that have been going on in Northern Ireland since the creation of the state in 1921 but intensified into armed conflict after the first Catholic civil rights marches in 1968.
One struggle was over who holds power within Northern Ireland where, in the first half century of its existence, Catholics were second class citizens in what they saw as an Orange state. The second struggle is over the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and the legitimacy of the state as a whole. It was the first issue which fuelled “the Troubles” so-called between 1968 and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and is now largely concluded.
But it is really only since the Brexit referendum in 2016 that Partition, the division of Ireland into two parts, has become the primary issue in dispute. Much of this is the result of serial missteps by the DUP which unwisely sought to use Brexit to reimpose a hard territorial 300 mile-long land border, only to have this strategy blow up in their face with the establishment of a new trade border running down the Irish Sea. They also made Partition an international issue – something that Irish Governments had failed to do.
Feeney says there has been real political change and some 4-5 per cent of the much-increased moderate Alliance Party vote comes from well-educated liberal unionists who oppose Brexit. But he says that the Assembly vote also shows that Northern Ireland voters remain 80 per cent divided between Orange and Green. The middle ground is little more extensive than in the past, contrary to multiple upbeat reports in the British media about the decline of national and religious identity as a determining factor in political allegiances.
The British government in Westminster is likely to go on using DUP and unionist opposition to the Protocol to try to persuade the EU that the Protocol needs to be modified. But its greater reliance on its alliance with the United States post Brexit limits Boris Johnson’s ability to dump the Protocol.
Other parts of the political landscape have also shifted in recent years, notably the rise of Sinn Féin in the Republic of Ireland as the largest party in the polls. This pushes the political agenda there in a more nationalist direction because the other political parties will not want to see Sinn Féin monopolise the national issue.
Nevertheless, the legacy of the past is never entirely dead and strongly influences the political atmosphere. “Bullets travel through time,” as the father of one man murdered in south Belfast in the 1990s put it.