Northern Ireland is a place with weak democratic roots. So it is troubling that, despite last week’s historic election with a clear winner and general support for a constructive government, it was set in stone.
The big news was the victory for Sinn Fein, the one-off political wing of the provisional IRA. It is now the largest party, with a 29% preference. This is a momentous moment for nationalists who want Northern Ireland to be part of Ireland.
Sinn Fein is the largest party in Northern Ireland’s parliament, meaning their leader, Michelle O’Neill, has the right to be chief minister, an upgrade from her current role as deputy chief minister.
Northern Ireland’s executive branch is always led by two leaders, one nationalist and one from the union community, who want the region to remain in the UK. Although one is called a “deputy,” the roles are equal. So O’Neal’s promotion was just a symbolic shift. But what symbolism. In the 1960s, when the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland began to work, the six counties were ravaged by cruelty and bigotry, with a predominantly Catholic nationalist minority denied equal rights. Having a nationalist in charge is a milestone.
Still, Sinn Fein’s victory did not bring unity any closer. The pro-peace Good Friday Agreement of 1998 stated that this could only be achieved by means of a referendum or “border polls”, which would only be held if the British government believed there was a nationalist majority. they do not.
In fact, in this election, nationalist polls are roughly the same as they were a generation ago. This time Sinn Fein’s vote has risen by consolidating the bloc – continuing a long-term trend that has sidelined the more moderate Social Democrats and Labour.
Meanwhile, unionism has split. The biggest trade union party, the Democratic Unionist Party (with some reason), has been accused by unionists of the existence of the Northern Ireland deal, which was part of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, creating a regulatory border for goods from the UK. Unionist voters are scattered, some are traditional unionist voices, a tougher party.
Some joined “neither,” or people who didn’t identify with either tradition — the only community that has grown significantly since 1998. The Coalition, a non-aligned party, soared to third place. It also garnered votes from moderate unionists and nationalists.
Accepting Sinn Fein’s chief minister is always painful for the DUP. But the DUP has also said it will deny access to the government until the agreement is gone. Under the rules, that would mean the province could go without a government — time would begin with another election. It may also return to power, perhaps with some assurances. But for a party with only 21% preference, using someone else’s power as a bargaining chip is anti-democratic.
Giving such a strong veto to the largest single party in both communities has been proven wrong. It will be even more untenable if neither rises or the vote breaks down further.
The UK government should not encourage this by talking about abandoning the deal. Improvements can be negotiated. The vast majority of voters support politicians who support this approach. The first task now must be to form a government. To that end, Sinn Fein should drop the upcoming border polls: it won’t happen and will make it harder for union members to get involved.
The idea of nationalist and civil rights leader John Hume first created the system, which he hoped would allow people to “work together for the good of all.” Northern Ireland needs a leader with his vision today.