One month after Northern Ireland celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the country once again went to the polls. For the first time ever, more people in Northern Ireland voted for nationalist parties than they did for avowedly unionist parties. Sinn Fein enjoyed a 7% increase on its 2019 vote share and even saw gains in previous unionist heartlands while the lowest voter turnout figures were found in unionist areas as opposed to more nationalist leaning areas. However, while the DUP made zero seat gains, they didn’t suffer huge losses either – a fact that will likely encourage them to continue holding out against a Windsor Framework agreement and a return to Stormont. During the campaign, Sinn Fein presented its leader, Michelle O’Neil, as “First Minister Designate”. While voting and counting has finished on another election, is still unclear as to whether O’Neil will be able to drop the word designate from that title anytime soon. Indeed, Jeffery Donaldson’s refusal to share power while simultaneously seeking to realign unionism so that his party can emerge at the head of a unified unionism and again outpoll Sinn Fein comes across as sheer bloody mindedness to many moderate nationalists. It has also encouraged some moderate non-unionists to vote Sinn Fein for the first time. Rather than realigning unionism, the DUP’s strategy has been more effective at realigning nationalism. Only time will tell if he manages to reset unionist relationships.
And now that Sinn Fein have won in Northern Ireland no-one expects them to lose in the next general election in the Republic. The two establishment parties, Fianna Fáil and Fianna Gael privately accept this. The former are likely to pitch themselves as the likely coalition partner to Sinn Fein to help temper their wilder ambitions. The latter are likely to campaign as an opposition-in-waiting. Both strategies explicitly accept Sinn Féin’s victory. The Greens and Labour are also in trouble.
On our recent trip to Northern Ireland, we caught up friends in the SDLP (the party suffered the largest losses of the election). For them, the 25th anniversary celebrations, and the (fleeting) visit from President Biden both acted as welcome reminders of the significance of the agreement that was reached a quarter of a century ago, while also being a reminder of how far the country still has to travel. Biden’s trip highlighted the fact that there was no functioning Stormont for him to visit and the divisions that the Good Friday Agreement sought to overcome are still the defining characteristics of Northern Ireland’s two main parties.
On our visit, it was perfectly clear what a vibrant and diverse country Northern Ireland is, and Belfast in particular has huge potential in emerging sectors including climate transition, cyber security and FinTech. However, it is also perfectly clear that the unwillingness to agree on a way forward for Stormont is having significant consequences on the country’s public services and finances.
Conversations of a summer return for Stormont is circulating but with the marching season still having a hold over Northern Ireland’s summer calendar, the date of any such return will be carefully calibrated by the DUP. A return to Stormont of course does not mean a return to normality. Eighteen months of no functioning government and immense budget pressures means the country’s public services are in desperate need of attention and reform. Jayne Brady, the head of the Northern Irish civil service, has invited party leaders to meet with her to start to discuss a way forward. For the sake of public services, and the people who desperately rely on them, let’s hope a path can be forged. Sinn Fein aren’t going away and a continued refusal to engage with them is neither in the UK’s or Ireland’s interest.
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