Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein is expected to make a historic breakthrough and emerge from Thursday’s elections as Northern Ireland’s largest party. But Sinn Fein’s advance looks limited, as it is projected to lose votes compared to last time. It owes its poll lead to a greater fall in support for the Democratic Unionist Party – while support for the union itself remains robust.
Polls forecast that the largest party in the Northern Irish Assembly will soon be Sinn Fein – the former political wing of nationalist terrorist group the IRA, the biggest killer in the Troubles before renouncing violence in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Generational change has improved Sinn Fein’s image a great deal. Former IRA member Martin McGuiness resigned as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister shortly before his death in 2017. Sinn Fein’s other dominant figure since the 1970s, Gerry Adams, stepped down as party president in 2018.
Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald took over their respective roles. Strong media performers, O’Neill and McDonald both entered politics after the Good Friday Agreement ended the Troubles – so they are untainted by association with those three decades of sectarian violence.
But some moments have prompted questions about how much Sinn Fein has really moved forward – most notably in 2020 when the new party leadership attended the funeral of Bobby Storey, widely believed to have been the IRA’s head of intelligence.
A year later, Sinn Fein made a symbolic move in the opposite direction – removed from the party ticket Martina Anderson, a former IRA bomber who launched a political career after the Good Friday Agreement released her from prison, following a poor electoral showing.
In the current campaign, O’Neill has downplayed identity issues. Acknowledging that Northern Irish public opinion is still against holding a referendum, she has focused her campaign on the cost of living.
“They’re not denying, not condemning, their history of affiliation with the IRA but at the same time they’re trying to sever as much as possible the current political party of the early 2020s from the political party of the late twentieth-century,” noted Agnès Maillot, a Northern Ireland specialist at Dublin City University and the author of a book about Sinn Fein, Rebels in Government.
Winning while losing support?
It is a huge testament to Sinn Fein’s image change that O’Neill is expected to become Northern Ireland’s first ever nationalist premier – an impossible scenario to imagine during the Troubles.
But there is a paradox here. The nationalists enjoy a whopping six-point lead over their arch-nemesis the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Yet surveys have repeatedly shown them stuck at just 26 percent of support – a slight dip from the 27.9 percent they won at the last Northern Irish elections in 2017.
Sinn Fein’s history imposes a ceiling on the support it can win, Maillot suggested: “For some people it’s a red line – and not only people in the unionist community.”
This time a broader phenomenon in Northern Irish politics is affecting Sinn Fein, as polls show some of its voters switching to centrist outfits – neither unionist nor nationalist – such as the Alliance Party.
“In this election we’re seeing the same shift in nationalism that took place in unionism about ten years ago, when you saw people moving towards the centre ground, particularly the Alliance Party,” said Peter Shirlow, director of Liverpool University’s Institute of Irish Studies.
Centrist parties like Alliance are gaining from both sides, Shirlow explained, because of a “high level of frustration” with Northern Ireland’s governance system set up during the Good Friday Agreement – a system designed for power-sharing between unionist and nationalist parties.
Devolution in Northern Ireland was “critical to end the conflict, but it didn’t take the heat out of constitutional questions”, Shirlow continued. It allowed “party elites to carry on playing those games” instead of focusing on pressing issues like the state of public services.
DUP losing votes from ‘various directions’
While this frustration affects both Sinn Fein and the DUP, there are other factors hurting the latter. For decades the hegemonic force in Northern Irish unionism, the DUP has been in crisis mode ever since the Northern Ireland Protocol in Boris Johnson’s 2019 Brexit deal created a customs border between the province and the rest of the UK.
There is a deep historic awareness that, beneath the surface, Conservative governments in Westminister will not protect their unionist friends in Northern Ireland if it conflicts with their interests. Ulster “has stuck too well to you, and you believe that because she is loyal you can kick her as you like”, Northern Ireland’s first premier and unionist icon Sir Edward Carson famously said in 1921.
Nearly a century on, the Irish border question was a Damoclean sword hanging over Northern Irish nationalists throughout Brexit talks – until Johnson struck his deal by plunging it into the unionists.
Far less astute than Carson, the DUP leadership seemed blind to the forces creating this outcome. The party backed Leave in the 2016 referendum, then gained disproportionate power following the 2017 general elections: The votes of its 10 MPs propped up Theresa May’s government after she lost the Conservatives’ majority. But they refused to support her withdrawal deal – even though it would have treated Northern Ireland the same as Great Britain – then backed May’s successor Johnson.
Johnson told the 2018 DUP party conference that “no British Conservative government could or should sign up to any […] agreement” requiring custom checks in the Irish Sea – a year before he was in Downing Street and did exactly that.
The DUP have lost support from various directions, Maillot pointed out: “For some unionist voters, the DUP are not doing enough to defend Northern Ireland’s constitutional place in the UK and those votes are being transferred to the more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice [TUV]. For other unionist voters, the DUP are too closely identified with rejection of the Northern Ireland Protocol, so they’re going to the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party [UUP].”
Leaving aside these constitutional questions, the DUP’s evangelical Protestant stance on social issues has increasingly grated on many Northern Ireland’s unionists, no matter how much they agree with the party about staying in the UK. “They’re socially liberal overall, like most other parts of the British electorate,” Shirlow put it. “They’re pro-choice on abortion and pro-gay marriage. The DUP has been losing these voters to the Alliance and hasn’t been chasing them back, instead they’ve focused on voters who defected to the TUV.”
All that said, analysts expect the DUP to hold on better than the polls forecast. Some undecided unionists will end up “holding their noses and voting DUP” to try and stop Sinn Fein winning, Shirlow said. Meanwhile the province’s complex voting system means second preference votes from other unionist parties will bolster their tally in tight races. “Clearly the DUP will take a hit and their share of the vote will be down, but the scale of their demise is overdone; and they will pick up transfers from the TUV and UUP,” said Jonathan Tonge, also a Northern Ireland expert at Liverpool University.
Catholic support for the union
Falling support for the DUP does not translate into falling support for unionism. Despite the unease Brexit has caused, polls have consistently shown a majority of the Northern Irish electorate wants to stay in the UK. “Brexit has undeniably had an impact, but there was a lazy assumption that it would lead to a united Ireland,” Tonge said.
A study by Liverpool University’s Institute of Irish Studies last December found that just 30 percent of the Northern Irish electorate would vote for a united Ireland tomorrow – and only 33.4 percent could see themselves doing so in 10 to 15 years.
This might seem surprising: since Northern Ireland was founded in 1921 to protect Ulster Protestants’ British identity upon the creation of the Irish Free State, demographic trends have slowly but surely favoured its largely nationalist Catholics due to a higher birth rate.
However, religious identity in the province is no longer interchangeable with political identity. In the 2011 UK census, 45 percent of Northern Irish said they came from a Catholic background, but only 25 percent expressed an exclusively Irish identity. Since the Good Friday Agreement, many Northern Irish Catholics have grown comfortable with being part of the UK – as well as appreciating certain advantages of the British system like the free medical care provided by the National Health Service.
“Even as the Catholic population rises, there are always significantly more Catholics who support the union than Protestants who support a united Ireland,” Shirlow pointed out. “Many Catholics have a lot of material interests in the union; whether they work in the public sector or for businesses linked to the UK. Many don’t want to go through the turmoil [of joining the Republic of Ireland]; they don’t want to have to pay for their healthcare, they don’t want the higher cost of living you tend to get in the Republic.”