By Steve Bell
The Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May 2022 saw an historic breakthrough for Sinn Féin. In its hundred year history, the Northern Ireland state has always had a unionist party as the largest party. This time, Sinn Féin secured 29% of the vote to become the largest party. Sinn Féin were then entitled to the post of First Minister, with Michelle O’Neill being nominated for the post. However, the DUP have refused to re-enter the Assembly Executive, preventing the Assembly from being re-established, and Michelle O’Neill from securing her hard won post.
The DUP’s new leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, had been elected to stabilise a party reeling from the chaotic loss of two previous leaders. Under Donaldson, the DUP collapsed the Assembly in February, the aim being to force the British government to end the Northern Ireland Protocol. The Protocol sustains the six counties of Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market by allowing border checks between Britain and Northern Ireland, rather than having border checks between north and south of Ireland. The Protocol has ensured a relatively smooth transition of the north’s economy in Brexit, only London has fared better in the UK. But, for the DUP the Protocol means a weakening of the union between the six counties and Britain, and so must be overturned.
The tactic of collapsing the Assembly was a gamble for Donaldson and the DUP. The assumption was that the anti-Protocol campaign would strengthen the DUP in the Assembly elections, forcing the British government, and the EU, to concede to DUP demands. The gamble failed badly for the DUP – its vote fell from 28.1% in the 2017 elections to 21.3% this year. No longer the largest party, it lost votes to its right and left. The hard line Traditional Ulster Voice (TUV) increased its vote from 2% to 7.6%. The centrist Alliance Party increased its vote from 9% to 13.5%. The Alliance – officially ‘neutral’ on the border question – won large numbers from the younger, more socially progressive sections of unionism, who came to maturity after the ending of the Troubles. Sinn Féin gained because of its determined and progressive role in the Peace Process, the work of the Assembly, and its prioritisation of defending living standards and public services.
The failure of Donaldson’s gamble should not have been such a surprise to those following the main political trends in Ireland. Changes in the six counties have seen the unionist parties lose their overall majority in the popular vote, in MP numbers and in MLAs. The social bloc of unionism has fragmented as it lost the “Ascendency” (institutionalised discrimination), the Protestant Parliament (Stormont until 1972), and its majority in political institutions after the Good Friday Agreement.
These developments in the north have been matched by a rise of republicanism in the south. Sinn Féin won the largest percentage of first preferences in the Dáil elections in 2020. Only an unprecedented coalition of the two major bourgeois parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, prevented Sinn Féin from forming a government. Such a government would be the first government not formed by one of the two bourgeois parties since the founding of the southern state. Since 2020, Sinn Féin has increased its popularity – after polling 24.5% in the 2020 elections, the most recent opinion polls give Sinn Féin 36%, compared to 18% for Fine Gael and 20% to Fianna Fáil. Sinn Féin has become the most popular party on the island of Ireland, and on both sides of the border.
Perhaps these developments would give the DUP pause for thought – that tide and time in Irish history is running in a different direction? Not at all. Donaldson’s DUP doubled down on its failed gamble. Under the Good Friday agreement, the British government has the capacity to call a new Assembly election six months after the failure to establish an agreed Executive. The assumption seems to be that the DUP will secure sufficient concessions in the further discussions on the Protocol, allowing it to present itself as a victor in the new elections, with a grateful unionist electorate restoring it the status of largest Assembly party.
Recent polls suggest that this new gamble will be no more successful than the first. The poll, commissioned by Irish News, conducted between June 28th and July 10th, reflects the trends evident in the May 2022 election. Sinn Féin’s vote rises from 29% to 30.9%. DUP’s vote falls from 21.3% to 20.1%. The Alliance vote rises from 13.5% to 15.3%. Indeed the other unionist parties also suffer a loss, the UUP from 11.2% to 9.6%, and the TUV from 7.6% to 4.7%. Apparently then the unionist project of abolishing the Protocol is losing popularity, from whatever interpretation may be given by the different parties. If so, this cannot be unrelated to the fact that the Protocol has given the business community some advantage in a time of extreme pressure on living standards and economic activity.
Of course, one opinion poll isn’t definitive. But two other polls confirm the trends. The Lucid Talk polling organisation published a breakdown of anticipated second preferences by Alliance Party voters. Published results show Alliance voters second preferences will go 54.2% to “pro-Irish parties”, (SDLP 33.1%, Sinn Féin 15.1%, People Before Profit 4.8%, Aontu 1.2%) compared to 22.6% to “pro-UK parties”, (UUP 15.1%, DUP 6.2%, and TUV 1.5%). This is clearly a blow to the DUP.
The other poll was carried out by Liverpool University for Irish News. The poll indicated that just over one percentage point separates those advocating a united Ireland and those against. 39.4% said they would vote for unity tomorrow, while 40.6% backed the status quo. For a poll in 15-20 years time, the pro-unity position has a lead of 41.9% compared to 33.8% against. In response to this poll, Sinn Féin’s National Chairperson, Declan Kearney said, “…Ireland is on the cusp of an historic opportunity to unravel the generational political, social and economic trauma which partition has brought about.”
Such a forward looking approach is currently entirely alien to Donaldson’s DUP. Instead it continues to gamble that one more throw of the dice will turn around the profound social processes underway in Ireland. From recent polling we can see which way the dice are likely to fall.