The British media has reached a consensus of great and groundbreaking insight: the results of last week’s assembly elections in Northern Ireland were historic.
In fairness, they’re not wrong. For the first time in the region’s history, Sinn Féin, “a party that believes Northern Ireland should break away from the United Kingdom” has become the largest party in Stormont. This was a “symbolic breakthrough”, according to The Guardian. “Is this the end of the union?”, anxious pundits wondered on BBC Radio 5 Live. Not necessarily, Daniel Finn argued more soberly for Novara Media: the “main reason Sinn Féin now occupies pole position in Northern Irish politics” is the “fragmentation of the unionist vote” – a conclusion shared by The Spectator.
For the most part, however, Sinn Féin’s victory has been attributed to its focus on anticipating and adapting to the realities of Brexit, in contrast to the inconsistent and tumultuous record of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). According to this view, within Northern Ireland’s longstanding and apparently inescapable nationalist versus unionist dialectic, the nationalists are now simply the more dynamic force, the union straining under the pressure of the post-Brexit trade protocol in particular.
Less analysed was what the success of the Alliance Party (AP) might suggest about the political landscape in Northern Ireland. A self-described “liberal” grouping, AP surged to claim 13.53% of the vote, gaining nine additional seats in Stormont. In Belfast South, where Sinn Féin topped the tally, the AP doubled its presence, scooping up a clutter of centrist and leftwing transfers and dislodging Green Party leader Claire Bailey in the process. South Down, likewise, saw the AP candidate edge to victory at the expense of the ordinarily secure Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). In the Unionist heartland of North Antrim, AP candidate Patricia O’Lynn defied all expectations to win the seat of the DUP incumbent Mervyn Storey.
Taken together, such unprecedented gains for a “progressive”, non-sectarian party mark a turning-point for electoral politics in the North, fracturing the binaries between Catholic and Protestant and nationalist and unionist. These binaries had been built into the region’s power-sharing structures, and have in turn patterned the narratives brought to bear on the post-conflict polity, including the commentaries above.
It’s notable that AP campaigned on a populist-leaning platform, opposing a stagnant politics of “instability and collapse, caused by the selfish few” with an eclectic alternative manifesto that included commitments including instituting a Green New Deal, eliminating zero-hour contracts, repealing blasphemy laws, ensuring the provision of transgender healthcare and ending the designation system in the Assembly. The resounding endorsement of such policies may be taken as a sign of a grassroots appetite for social diversity and actually functioning democracy in a province that has struggled not only with issues of sectarian hostility and stalemate, but repeated charges of systemic misogyny and homophobia (trends also discernible in the South).
Tellingly, Northern Ireland’s third largest party refuses to foreground the question of partition and/or Irish reunification, preferring to emphasise instead the common traditions shared by Northern Irish people of all identities. One can acknowledge the limitations of such an approach while also recognising that its discourse of community-focused, cultural inclusivity seems to have struck a chord with a considerable portion of the population. As such, growing support for AP may help to shed light on Sinn Féin’s own electoral success, which most British media outlets have continued to interpret as purely nationalistic in character.
Despite being in government in Northern Ireland for over two decades, Sinn Féin have proven adept at re-framing their aims to speak to the immediate concerns of constituencies burdened by both new and enduring forms of austerity and social crisis. The party’s election messaging affirmed values of “diversity, equality and respect”, while reiterating Sinn Féin’s commitment to strengthening workers’ rights, tackling the cost of living crisis, defending the health service and taking meaningful action to combat climate change, in consultation with farmers and workers on the frontlines of this battle. As one party organiser summarised, Sinn Féin’s self-defined goal is to effect “progressive change that can make a real difference to people’s lives”, working in “partnership, not division with unionism”, but also serving “those who are of neither a unionist nor nationalist political tradition”.
What commentators in Britain outside of the six counties often miss is that Sinn Féin are republicans yes, nationalists too, but their representatives also speak the language of state-led social democracy, and in many cases demonstrate a grassroots-oriented understanding of political struggle, with a notable internationalist and anti-racist dimension. In the wake of what Sinn Féin call the “Brexit debacle” – to which a majority of Northern Irish voters were opposed from the beginning – such a social programme no doubt holds genuine appeal. And to many it will seem more achievable under the rubric of renewed EU membership, which now exists in tandem with the party’s “transcendent long-term objective” of Irish unity.
In any case, Sinn Féin have been able to cite – often evasively, but not altogether inaccurately – “Tory rule” and the intransigence and waywardness of the DUP as repeated obstacles to workers rights in the North, and to the realisation of the party’s own socialist political vision. In the South, meanwhile, the party, leading the parliamentary opposition, has been openly hailed as a beacon of left populism, funnelling widespread frustration around health and housing to its electoral benefit – a factor which may add a shine to the general aura of “progressive” mission occasionally channelled by its northern MLAs.
That politicians so long in power can continue to campaign (and win seats) with a message of much-needed social reform, calling for inclusivity and change, is, in part, symptomatic of the complex structures that shape politics in the North. Brexit, as we’ve seen, has exacerbated the many paradoxes that accompany this status quo, not least the seeming inability of the power-sharing system to accommodate electoral diversity in the form of non-traditional parties, as the position of AP post-election now illustrates.
But by viewing the results solely through the prism of Brexit, or nationalism versus unionism, commentators risk obscuring the social and economic factors behind the growing sea-change in popular opinion. Workers want wages they can live on; grassroots groups are calling for the rights of “women, trans and non-binary people, caregivers, refugees and asylum seekers” to be recognised and supported; people of all communities need democratic processes and basic services that operate to standard. Whether or not Sinn Féin’s professed commitment to progressive policies will be adequate when it comes to alleviating these crises in the long term is an open question. But the popularity of such demands can’t be doubted, and their transformative potential for Northern Irish politics shouldn’t be downplayed (especially given the frequent intractability of the existing model).
If the recent experiences of the populist left across Europe hold a lesson for would-be socialist reformers, it’s that progressive change is best won not through equivocation and compromise by a political cadre focused on achieving and retaining office for itself, but through the concerted, sustained action of people-powered movements and their representatives. As a polyvalent mass party with an often clear-sighted understanding of grassroots concerns, Sinn Féin should take note. Indeed, the party has an opportunity to resurrect the pluralistic aspirations of the nationalist tradition, helping to revitalise the project of a genuinely radical republicanism (never yet realised): one that guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities, and resolves to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation, cherishing all its children equally.
Ciarán O’Rourke is a poet and writer.