As the political actors in Belfast, Dublin and London digest last Thursday’s Northern Ireland Assembly election, one thing they can’t complain about is a lack of fair warning. Opinion surveys may have been a wonky guide to the final outcome in several high-profile votes over the past few years, but in this case, there was no sudden shock to absorb.
Every poll since autumn 2020 had predicted that Sinn Féin would leapfrog the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) to become the largest party, and so it proved to be. Over the course of 18 months, the DUP tried everything it could think of to turn things around, from changing the party leader – not once but twice – to withdrawing its first minister Paul Givan from the power-sharing executive in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol. The DUP election campaign urged unionist voters to put their frustration with the party’s recent track record on ice and rally around the only force that could prevent Sinn Féin from claiming the first minister post. It was all to no avail.
Sinn Féin’s eventual score of 29% placed it almost 8% ahead of the DUP. It was also a slight improvement on the party’s 2017 performance, even though every poll had suggested the Sinn Féin vote would fall slightly. The fragmentation of the unionist vote is the main reason Sinn Féin now occupies pole position in Northern Irish politics. But the party wouldn’t have been able to exploit the DUP’s self-inflicted crisis without clearing a few hurdles of its own over the past few years.
In the 2016 Assembly election, Sinn Féin looked like the party on the back foot, not the DUP. Its vote share declined by nearly 3% that year after almost a decade in office as part of the regional power-sharing government. Soon afterwards, the combined electorate of the UK voted to leave the EU, while Northern Ireland voted to remain by a margin of 56 to 44%. The DUP was the only major party to support the leave campaign. The Sinn Féin leadership decided it was time for a more confrontational stance towards their erstwhile governing partner and brought down the regional executive in January 2017.
This tactical turn paid off in the snap election that followed, with turnout rising by almost 10% and a 4% increase in Sinn Féin’s vote share. The DUP’s lead over Sinn Féin shrank abruptly to a single seat in the Assembly, or less than 1,500 votes. This near-miss should have been a chastening experience for the DUP leadership, but the outcome of the Westminster election three months later encouraged feelings of hubris, as the Conservatives now relied on DUP votes to stay in office. Negotiations to restore the executive at the start of 2018 proved abortive after a backlash from DUP activists against fairly modest concessions to Sinn Féin.
At this point, the strategies of Sinn Féin and the DUP appeared to be unfolding along parallel lines, with both parties looking beyond the confines of Northern Ireland to strengthen their political hands. Sinn Féin wanted to become a major player in Dublin as well as Belfast, while the DUP was enjoying its newfound role as kingmaker at Westminster. However, there was a fundamental asymmetry between the parties as they went looking for fresh political pastures.
Sinn Féin’s role in the politics of the southern Irish state depends on its own electoral strength: the more votes and seats it wins, the stronger its position will be. The DUP, on the other hand, can never hope to win electoral support in Britain, and Northern Ireland’s Westminster seats account for less than 3% of the total. Its position of influence between June 2017 and December 2019 was the result of developments in British politics over which the DUP had no control. It would only take a small electoral shift to push the party back to the margins.
The two parties also took parallel gambles on the Brexit crisis after the 2016 referendum, but their respective chances of success were very different. For Sinn Féin, it was something of an each-way bet. Its supporters and the wider nationalist community would be happy if Brexit was stopped altogether, since they saw it as a British nationalist project with dubious implications for the region. On the other hand, if Brexit went ahead in one form or another, it was likely to disturb the union between Northern Ireland and Britain and increase support for Irish unity.
While the DUP initially greeted the leave vote with delight, its ability to capitalise on Brexit was much more doubtful than that of Sinn Féin. The driving force behind the whole project was a form of British (above all English) nationalism that had no particular interest in the fate of Northern Ireland. By the end of 2017, Theresa May had agreed with the EU negotiating team that there could be no return to a hard border between the two Irish jurisdictions.
That left the DUP with two unwelcome outcomes to choose from: either there would be a softer form of Brexit for the whole of the UK than they wanted, or else there would be special arrangements for Northern Ireland that created trade barriers in the Irish sea. The only other remaining option was a no-deal exit, but the DUP’s temporary allies on the Tory right had no intention of going down that road for the sake of Northern Irish unionism. The Northern Ireland Protocol of Boris Johnson’s Brexit agreement was the most expedient way for the Conservatives to resolve the protracted crisis of 2018-19. Its leaders and voters had no hesitation in passing the burden of that crisis onto the DUP.
The 2019 Westminster election ensured Brexit would be going ahead in the form to which Johnson had agreed. The results of that election in Northern Ireland proved to be of limited value as an indication of what was going to happen last week. The DUP certainly lost ground in 2019, with a drop of over 5%, but so did Sinn Féin, by an even bigger margin (6.7%). It seemed as if there was a general backlash against the two dominant parties which had been unable to resolve their differences since January 2017. The cross-community, anti-Brexit Alliance party had the most reason to be satisfied with the outcome, having more than doubled its vote share.
Sinn Féin’s loss of support turned out to be a blip, while for the DUP, it was the beginning of a downward trend. The broad political landscape over the past two years has certainly been much more favourable for Sinn Féin. Every development in the unfolding controversy over the Northern Ireland Protocol has served as a reminder of the DUP’s poor strategic choices between 2016 and 2019. All the DUP had to offer its potential supporters was a defensive struggle to prevent things from getting worse for the unionist cause. In contrast, Sinn Féin could hold out the prospect of taking a few steps closer to its ultimate goal, a united Ireland.
In a more conventional political system, it would be absurd for a party that has been in government for most of the period since 2007 to campaign with the slogan ‘Time For Real Change’, as Sinn Féin did. But the idea of electing a nationalist first minister made that seem perfectly reasonable to voters who understood the importance of political symbolism. Like the Scottish National party, Sinn Féin has the rare privilege of being able to present itself simultaneously as a party of government with a short-term policy agenda and a party of protest with a transcendent long-term objective.
As the results were coming in, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald suggested that a border poll might well happen in the next five years. In truth, there is still a long road to travel before that aspiration becomes a reality. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the British government is not obliged to call a referendum unless it “appears likely […] that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.” As things stand, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, is well within his rights to oppose calls for a plebiscite.
The total vote share for parties that support Irish unity was a little over 40%, and there is a substantial bloc of constitutional agnostics – neither unionist nor nationalist – clustered around the Alliance party, which became Northern Ireland’s third force with 13.5% of the vote. A campaign for Irish unity won’t have a chance of success unless its supporters can win over a large part of this non-aligned bloc, and a decisive ‘no’ vote would take the issue off the agenda for a long time to come. The Sinn Féin leadership will understand this perfectly well, so rhetoric aside, we should expect them to proceed cautiously.
Bridging the gap.
Away from the high politics of Brexit and constitutional change, the election result in Derry demonstrated that Sinn Féin is capable of holding its ground in the face of challenges at a local level. In the 2019 Westminster election, the party lost Derry’s Foyle constituency to the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) on a massive swing of almost 27%. This came after local elections earlier in 2019 that saw Sinn Féin lose nearly a third of its seats in the Derry City and Strabane area.
The party leadership ordered an investigation into what had gone wrong with its organisation in Derry, and the outcome was bitterly controversial: Sinn Féin asked its two sitting Assembly members, Martina Anderson and Karen Mullan, to stand down. Anderson, a high-profile IRA veteran who has also represented Sinn Féin in the European Parliament, described the request as a “body blow”. The SDLP was hoping to capitalise on the inner-party turmoil and take an extra seat in Foyle at Sinn Féin’s expense. In the end, however, the SDLP vote dropped slightly, and Sinn Féin topped the poll with a previously unknown candidate in his mid-twenties.
Sinn Féin might have a harder time bridging the gap between the different scales on which Northern Irish politics operates – local and national, short-term and long-term, managing the state and questioning its existence – if the DUP was ready to go back into government straight away. After the excitement of last week, Sinn Féin voters would be confronted with the reality that a nationalist first minister has precisely the same powers as a nationalist deputy first minister, and that nothing gets through the Stormont system without cross-community support.
However, the DUP leadership has to perform some delicate choreography of its own before that can happen. Having refused to say whether they would serve under a Sinn Féin first minister before the election, DUP politicians have not presented that as a deal-breaker since Sinn Féin’s status as the largest party was confirmed. Instead, they have insisted that the Northern Ireland Protocol is the main barrier to progress.
That leaves open the possibility of waiting for the British government to extract a few minor but face-saving concessions from the EU over the operation of the Protocol, whereupon the DUP can proclaim victory and return to government. The main problem with this approach is the credibility deficit. Everyone can see what the DUP is doing, and everyone can see that its leaders are trying to protect the narrow interests of their party rather than the wider cause of unionism. Pulling off this manoeuvre would be tricky enough at the best of times, let alone during a global economic crisis whose consequences are being felt in every household.