For the first time in the history of Northern Ireland, an Irish nationalist party wins an election. More so, that party was Sinn Fein – once the political arm of the Provisional IRA, it believes the six counties do not belong in the UK.
Speaking to the media after the election, Nicola Sturgeon was quick to draw parallels between the SNP and Sinn Fein, and their positions on the UK. “There’s no doubt that big fundamental questions are being asked in the UK as a political entity at the moment,” 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 fundamental changes in British governance in the years to come and I’m one of these changes will be the independence of Scotland.
Shortly after, she and the First Minister-designate of Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, met at Bute House in Edinburgh (at O’Neill’s request) to discuss the “common challenges” facing the two nations face. Undoubtedly, their dissatisfaction with the British government was expressed.
Sturgeon is still aiming to hold a referendum before the end of 2023, while Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald has said a border ballot on a united Ireland could be held within five years. Indeed, it is easy to assume – from the success of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland and the Republic, and the continued dominance of the SNP in Scotland – that the end of the United Kingdom is near. But this assumption would be a naïve simplification.
Sam McBride, Northern Irish editor of 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 wave of support for Irish reunification. The total nationalist vote is actually down slightly in this election. What you have here are people moving between different unionist parties and between different nationalist parties.”
It matters because, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary should only call a referendum “if at any time it seems likely to him that a majority” in Northern Ireland would vote to leave the UK. Polls in all six counties consistently show relatively low levels of support for reunification.
And rather than a win for Sinn Fein, the Stormont election result is seen more as a loss for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Sinn Fein stood still at 27 seats, only marginally boosting its vote, while the DUP hemorrhaged votes in favor of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), resulting in three fewer seats.
McBride says the reason the TUV has done so well is because it took a tougher line against the Northern Ireland Protocol – the part of the Brexit deal that sees exports checked on entry into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, rather than across the border on the island of Ireland.
McBride says: “The DUP folks have been saying both officially and unofficially over the last week or so that they think if they hadn’t moved to such a tough stance on protocol they would have really suffered. , maybe not electoral wipe out, but they would have lost a lot more seats than they lost.
This situation is not yet resolved. The DUP is currently refusing to hold the post of deputy prime minister – a post equal to that of prime minister and to which it is entitled as the party with the second most seats – and thus preventing the creation of an executive. to the British government. takes action. If this continues for six months, Northern Ireland could end up at the polls again.
UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss last week announced plans to introduce legislation amending 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 greeted with caution by the DUP but criticized by Sinn Fein – which backs the protocol – and the EU itself.
But does this automatically put pressure on the Union itself? Philip Rycroft was a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, advising on constitutional matters, between 2012 and 2019. He recounts Holyrood: “Brexit has destabilized the Union, both in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and to some extent in Wales as well. Nobody knows, at this point, how this will play out in the years to come, although of course there are different considerations.
“In Northern Ireland you have the immediate problem of Protocol. Will this stop the formation of an Executive? Will it lead to a trade war if the UK government unilaterally tears up parts of it? It’s a slower burn in Scotland. But in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales, there is 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 is the biggest problem? Right now, if you look at the polls, Scotland has always been around the 50% mark – a bit above, a bit below – for the past two years. It is, if you take a step back, a remarkable situation, where around half of people in one part of the UK want to get out. In Northern Ireland, support for unification isn’t that high – it’s trending up, but not much above the 40s in most polls.
“So from the polls you would say there are more people in Scotland unhappy with the Union than there are in Northern Ireland, but what nobody can quite predict, it is how events will unfold in what is more feverish. situation than it was before Brexit.
A key difference between the situation in Northern Ireland and Scotland, however, is that the former has a clear path to a border ballot. For Scotland, beyond ‘once in a generation’ and ‘now is not the time’, the UK government has so far avoided specifying under what circumstances it would grant an order under Article 30 to allow for a legally binding referendum.
Professor Nicola McEwan of the Center on Constitutional Change says: “If we got to the point where there were clear majorities in favor of a referendum or independence [in Scotland]this in itself does not open a constitutional path for Scotland as it would in Northern Ireland.
However, she adds that if the situation were to change in Northern Ireland, “it would be very difficult, I think, for the UK government to facilitate a process in Northern Ireland, while ignoring a similar situation in Scotland”. But it doesn’t look like that scenario will play out any time soon.
Rycroft criticizes the British government’s avoidance of the subject in Scotland. He says not charting a course for another referendum, in the hope that it would reduce calls for such a referendum, is “terribly ill-conceived”. Rather, he argues that the way to save the Union is to make people in devolved nations feel like they are heard by Westminster.
“Personally, I think this requires a substantial change in the way the UK government is structured and the way governance takes place. I think that will require a change in governance in England, because as long as England is so centralised, it will kind of pit England against the other three parts of the UK. If there was significant devolution in England, more decentralized governments at the regional level, if there was a different configuration in the functioning of parliaments.
He adds: ‘The current British government shows virtually no inclination to enter that kind of space, rather obsessed with what I consider to be a very, very old-fashioned notion of Westminster parliamentary sovereignty, very dismissive of the thought innovative around the constitution, it’s not going to change.
Ultimately, however, Stormont’s election had more to do with the cost of living and, for trade unionists, Protocol than with the UK – despite efforts by Sinn Fein and the SNP to do so. pass as such. McBride explains: “I don’t think the main problem in this election was dissatisfaction with the British government. There is a lot of discontent with the UK government, and one of the few things that manages to unite most people in Northern Ireland is their dislike and distrust of Boris Johnson. It is probably no different from the situation in Scotland. But that hasn’t really been the central problem of this campaign.