By Ian Richardson
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams has described the result of the Northern Ireland Assembly as a watershed. He is completely correct.
Sinn Féin was the main winner, up 4 per cent from elections held just 10 months earlier on a significantly increased turnout, a rise of almost 10 per cent. Sinn Féin’s vote increased by a over a third compared to May 2015, to 224,000. It has also effectively drawn level with the main unionist party the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), on 27.9 per cent first preference votes versus the DUP’s 28.1 per cent.
This is the highest vote Sinn Féin has ever achieved in a Northern Irish election. In the new smaller Assembly there is also parity between avowedly unionist and nationalist parties, each with 39 seats combined. As Gerry Adams said, “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished.”
This is a watershed moment in a state that was created on a sectarian headcount basis and designed to have a large unionist majority. Ever since the Good Friday Agreement was endorsed in 1998 the monolithic unionist political bloc began to splinter. This result continued that trend, with Mike Nesbitt the leader of the long-dominant UUP (Ulster Unionist Party) resigning immediately after failing to capitalise on the DUP’s involvement in corruption scandals. There will be continuing question marks too over Arlene Foster’s leadership of the DUP. Sinn Féin withdrew from the power-sharing executive of the Assembly because the DUP leadership refused to stand down from office while the financial scandal of a corrupt ‘renewable energy scheme’ was investigated.
That scandal around the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme that siphoned off £400 million of public spending in the North was the immediate cause of the snap election. Republicans had also been excluded by the unionist leadership as it reverted to its historic position, effectively refusing to work with Sinn Féin of recognise its mandate.
But a major underlying fact is Brexit, which 56 per cent of the voters in Northern Ireland voted against in the referendum and whose effects will be disastrous for the economy both sides of the Irish border. In these elections, Remain-supporting parties gained two-thirds of first preference votes. Yet the DUP has been working closely with the Tories at Westminster to push through the Brexit legislation, and was used to channel Tory-supporting Brexit campaign funds. All of this is clearly at odds with the interests and the express views of the Irish population.
The British government will attempt to disregard the election outcome and to bolster its new allies in the DUP. Labour should oppose all such efforts. Labour’s long-held position is to accept Irish unity by consent. Exiting both the European Union and the Single Market as well as the re-establishment of a hard border with the Republic is absolutely not with the consent of the Irish people. It could only be done by imposition.
Most of the Good Friday Agreement, which aims to establish equality and remove political sectarianism has never been implemented. Each crisis in the process has been provoked by unionist and British government attempts to disregard its provisions. They have been resolved by an advance for Sinn Féin. Of course, the British government will be aiming to break that pattern. But Sinn Féin is now in its strongest position and equally determined to pursue its agenda for equality, for remaining in the EU and for Irish unity. These election results are a huge boost to that project.