It is clear that Sinn Féin has achieved a historic result in the Stormont elections. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, a Nationalist party will claim the most seats in a political system originally designed to ensure a Unionist majority.
Yet this does not reflect an increase in support for Sinn Féin. The party has seen only a marginal increase in its votes since the last Stormont election in 2017. The party’s steady progress is made even more spectacular by the collapse of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and wider divisions within the union system.
By pooling all their votes, the unionist parties can still claim a fractional advantage over their nationalist rivals. However, demographic trends continue to favor the latter. Sinn Féin’s achievement has long been foretold, and union members must realize there will be no return to their former dominance.
The other notable trend is the significant growth of the cross-community Alliance party. The number of votes has increased by a third since 2017 and the number of seats has doubled. However, suggestions that this shows significant growth in the moderate middle are somewhat misleading. The Alliance Party’s gains come at the expense of other cross-community groups, such as the Greens, who have lost all representation in Stormont.
The Alliance has also received votes from moderate nationalist and unionist parties. Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Doug Beattie is clearly trying to steer the party in a more progressive direction, but nearly lost his seat.
Meanwhile, the moderate nationalist Social Democratic & Workers’ Party (SDLP) has had a harrowing election. Despite the emergence of a string of young and capable leaders, it appears that liberal nationalist voters have either defected to the Alliance or decided to punish union members for their political intransigence by voting for Sinn Féin.
The DUP has clearly tested the patience of many nationalists – resisting legislation that would support Irish language speakers, supported Brexit and then rejected the negotiated deal – and the SDLP is a victim of this.
Analysts who see major political progress in the Alliance party’s march may misinterpret the general election results. There is certainly political flow and shifting alignments along the moderate middle ground, but so far there has been no hugely significant erosion in overall support for more traditional parties.
Turnout was slightly lower than in the last Stormont election, with more than a third of registered voters exercising their democratic right to stay at home. They are probably the citizens most disillusioned with the political status quo in Northern Ireland, but without their involvement the situation remains the same.
And so are the power-sharing prospects at Stormont. Despite Sinn Féin’s success, no government can be formed without a DUP agreement. There are questions as to whether it is willing to serve in a government where Sinn Féin would take on the role of prime minister.
While the deputy prime minister has equal powers, even the idea of submission to Sinn Féin is hard for the DUP to swallow. Even more problematic, the party insists it will not return to government until changes are made to the so-called Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit deal.
The protocol requires controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, which the DUP says separates the region from the rest of the UK and weakens the union. However, it is clear that the protocol is not a priority even for many union voters.
Sinn Féin’s emphasis on more practicalities, such as the rising cost of living, has clearly served him better than the DUP’s lingering obsession with Brexit arrangements. The fact that the DUP does not have a clear alternative to the protocol does not help either.
The continuation of the protocol in one form or another seems inevitable, adding to trade union fears for Northern Ireland’s political future. As polls indicate Sinn Féin will soon be in power in Dublin as well, this makes it harder for the DUP to help its rival in the Belfast government, creating a situation where Republicans could claim to oversee the alignment of the two parts of Ireland to progress reunification.
Fresh thinking required
While traumatic for union members, the best that can come out of this situation is a more fundamental reshuffling of politics within this community. Nationalism unites around Sinn Féin’s agenda, north and south. Unionism must also unite behind a progressive strategy rather than one that simply wants to turn back the clock.
A much more progressive case could be made for the union, and even protocol. Unionists could argue that Northern Ireland now enjoys unique advantages. Unlike the rest of the UK, it still has unrestricted access to EU markets. Unlike the Republic of Ireland, it has universal health care. Why, union members might ask, would voters want to waive by either removing protocol or uniting with the south?
It remains to be seen whether the union industry has a leader who can convincingly articulate such an approach. This seems to be where Doug Beattie of the UUP is headed, but look at his difficulties. Perhaps the shift should be more radical, with trade unionism actually being run by a party that refuses to call itself a trade unionist: the Alliance.
Only time will tell, and the process would probably be slow and painful. Meanwhile, without an agreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP, the political stalemate in Northern Ireland will continue and the future will have to wait.