Sinn Fein’s victory is not the anti-Union win Scottish nationalists paint it as
For the first time in Northern Irish history, an Irish nationalist party won an election. More still, that party was Sinn Fein – once the political arm of the Provisional IRA, it believes the six counties do not belong in the United Kingdom.
Speaking to the media after the election, Nicola Sturgeon was quick to draw parallels between the SNP and Sinn Fein, and their stances on the UK. “There’s no doubt there are big fundamental questions being asked of the UK as a political entity right now,” she said. “They’re being asked here in Scotland, they’re being asked in Northern Ireland, they’re being asked in Wales, and I think we’re going to see some fundamental changes to UK governance in the years to come and I am certain one of those changes is going to be Scottish independence.”
Not long after, she and First Minister Designate of Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, met at Bute House in Edinburgh (at the request of O’Neill) to discuss “shared challenges” the two nations face. No doubt there was some airing of their dissatisfaction with the UK Government.
Sturgeon is still aiming to hold a referendum before the end of 2023, while Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein’s president, has said a border poll on a united Ireland could happen within five years. Indeed, it’s easy to assume – from Sinn Fein’s success both in Northern Ireland and the Republic, and the SNP’s continued dominance in Scotland – that the end of the UK is nigh. But that assumption would be a naïve oversimplification.
Sam McBride, Northern Ireland editor of the Belfast Telegraph, explains that while Sinn Fein’s victory is “symbolically significant”, a united Ireland does not automatically follow. “There is no sense here that this is part of a wider surge towards support for Irish reunification. The total nationalist vote actually is slightly down in this election. What you have here is people moving between different unionist parties and between different nationalist parties.”
That matters because, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the UK’s Northern Ireland Secretary should only call a referendum “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority” in Northern Ireland would vote to leave the UK. Polling in the six counties consistently show relatively low levels of support for reunification.
And rather than a victory for Sinn Fein, the Stormont election result is rather better viewed as a loss for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Sinn Fein stayed still at 27 seats, only increasing their vote marginally, while the DUP haemorrhaged votes to the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), resulting in three fewer seats.
McBride says the reason the TUV did so well is because they took a harder line against the Northern Ireland Protocol – the part of the Brexit deal that sees exports checked as they enter Northern Ireland from Great Britain, rather than at the border on the island of Ireland.
McBride says: “People in the DUP have said both on and off the record over the last week or so, that they think if they hadn’t moved to such a hardline position on the Protocol that they would really have suffered, maybe not electoral wipe-out, but they would have lost an awful lot more seats than they did.”
That situation is yet to be resolved. The DUP is currently refusing to take up the post of deputy first minister – a position equal to first minister and to which they are entitled as the party with the second highest number of seats – and thus preventing the creation of an Executive until the UK Government takes action. If that continues for six months, Northern Ireland could end up heading to the polls again.
UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss announced plans last week to bring forward legislation to alter the Protocol. She insisted the changes would simply remove “unnecessary bureaucracy” around the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This was cautiously welcomed by the DUP but slammed by Sinn Fein – who support the Protocol – and the EU itself.
But does this automatically heap pressure on the Union itself? Philip Rycroft was a senior civil servant within the Cabinet Office, advising on constitutional issues, between 2012 and 2019. He tells Holyrood: “Brexit has destabilised the Union, both in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and to an extent in Wales as well. Nobody knows, at this point, how that’s going to unfold in the years ahead, though there are different considerations, of course.
“In Northern Ireland, you have the immediate problem of the Protocol. Is that going to stop the formation of an Executive? Is it going to lead to trade war if the UK Government unilaterally tears up elements of it? It’s a slower burn in Scotland. But in both Northern Ireland and in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales, there’s a sense in which the Brexit process has hardened opinion, in a way, which is not helpful for the Union.
“But you asked the question, what’s the bigger issue? At the moment, if you look at the polls, Scotland has been consistently around the 50 per cent mark – a little bit above, a little bit below – over the last couple years. That is, if you step back from it, a remarkable situation, where around half the people in one part of the UK want out. In Northern Ireland, support for unification is not that high – it has trended upwards, but not much more than the low 40s in most polls.
“So, from the polling, you would say that there are more people in Scotland disgruntled with the Union than there are in Northern Ireland, but what nobody can’t quite predict is how events are going to work out in what is a more febrile situation than it was pre-Brexit.”
A key difference between the situation in Northern Ireland and in Scotland, though, is that the former has a clear route to a Border poll. For Scotland, beyond “once in a generation” and “now is not the time”, the UK Government have so far avoided setting out in what circumstances they would grant a Section 30 order to allow a legally binding referendum.
Professor Nicola McEwan of the Centre on Constitutional Change says: “If we got to the point where there were clear majorities in support for either a referendum or for independence [in Scotland], that in itself doesn’t open up a constitutional path for Scotland in the way that it would in Northern Ireland.”
However, she adds that if the situation were to shift in Northern Ireland, “it’d be very difficult, I think, for the UK Government to facilitate a process in Northern Ireland, while ignoring a similar situation within Scotland”. But it doesn’t appear like that scenario will play out any time soon.
Rycroft is critical of the way the UK Government is avoiding the subject in Scotland. He says that not setting out a route to another referendum, in the hope that it would dampen down calls for one, is “woefully ill-conceived”. He instead argues the way to save the Union is to ensure that people in the devolved nations feel like they are being heard by Westminster.
“I personally think that requires a substantial change in the way that the UK Government is structured and the way that governance happens. I think it will require changing governance in England, because as long as England is so centralised, it in a way pits England against the other three parts of the UK. If there was significant decentralisation in England, more devolved governments at a regional level, if there was a different configuration in the way that parliaments are operated.”
He adds: “The current UK Government shows pretty much zero inclination to get into that sort of space, it’s rather obsessed with what I think of as a very, very outmoded notion of Westminster parliamentary sovereignty, very dismissive of innovative thinking around the constitution, it isn’t going to move.”
Ultimately, though, the Stormont election had more to do with the cost of living and, for unionists, the Protocol than the United Kingdom – despite efforts by both Sinn Fein and the SNP to spin it as such. McBride explains: “I don’t think that the essential issue in this election was dissatisfaction with the UK Government. There’s lots of dissatisfaction with the UK Government, and one of the very few things which manages to unite most people in Northern Ireland is their dislike and their distrust of Boris Johnson. That’s probably not any different to the situation in Scotland. But that hasn’t really been the central issue in this campaign.”