Following Thursday’s elections, Sinn Féin is now the largest party in Stormont. This will have explosive repercussions across Ireland and Britain: accelerating the crisis of unionism and sharpening UK-EU tensions.
Sinn Féin has emerged as the first party in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. With a remarkable 29% of the first preference votes to the DUP’s 21.3%, the gap was even wider than predicted.
Within hours of the polls closing, #UnitedIreland was trending on Twitter. This is another devastating blow to the prestige of British imperialism, and another tear in the fraying fabric of the so-called ‘United Kingdom’.
Commentators talked about a ‘political earthquake’ in 2017, when the unionist parties lost their collective majority at Stormont, and Sinn Féin stood only 1,200 first preference votes behind the biggest party, the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party). Now Sinn Féin has taken over 66,000 more first preference votes than the DUP.
At the very moment that Boris Johnson is puffing himself up like a bullfrog over the Ukraine war – lecturing a world power on why it is bad to carve chunks out of sovereign nations – a vote in a province carved out of another sovereign nation by British imperialism a century ago has deflated these pretensions.
The United Kingdom is in an advanced state of decay. And the Westminster government is in no position to lecture anyone. It doesn’t even have authority in what it regards as its own ‘backyard’.
For the first time in the history of this state a Republican Party has received the most 1st preference votes.
SF received 250,388
— Piarais Mac Alastair (@piarais91) May 6, 2022
Giving the game away
In the wake of this historic election, we were surprised to find clues as to why the result was so historic in the unlikeliest of places. The BBC, a mouthpiece of British imperialism, candidly explained to its viewers:
“Sinn Féin, a nationalist party, has topped the poll. That has never happened before in the 101-year history of northern Ireland’s existence. Northern Ireland was literally designed, its borders were designed, so that that wouldn’t happen, so that there would be an in-built unionist majority.” (Our emphasis)
Here it is from the horse’s mouth: the imperialists designed Northern Ireland as ‘a Protestant state for a Protestant people’. And 36 consecutive elections in the last 101 years have returned a unionist party as the largest party. Election 37 has upended all that.
The borders of this state were drawn with no other logic in mind than retaining the most industrialised part of Ireland, and retaining within it a durable Protestant majority. The sizable Catholic minority were retained as hostages – a subjugated minority without rights or representation.
Catholics were disenfranchised; denied housing; denied jobs; gerrymandered out of power; and subjected to all manner of repression. Meanwhile, the Protestants were constantly incited against their Catholic neighbours.
Protestants were warned by a unionist establishment of the horrors that would ensue if their naturally-resentful neighbours got the upper hand.
They were encouraged to participate in annual carnivals of intimidation – marches and bonfires supposedly celebrating the triumphs of 17th century ‘King Billy’. These marches (which are today called ‘culture’) were intended to send a message to the Catholics: “Remember, you are on the bottom. And we, the Protestants, are on top.”
So the BBC (for once) got it quite right! This literally was not meant to happen. It is a complete break with the sectarian designs of British imperialism. In the travesty of democracy that is Northern Ireland, a nationalist party was never meant to win.
And now that it has won, a constitutional crisis looms for the statelet – alongside a psychological crisis for an already crisis-ridden unionism.
Bridesmaid to Sinn Féin?
Formally speaking (but only formally speaking!) this election changes little.
Whoever wins, all the parties are forced into a mandatory coalition. An executive is then formed by cooperation between nationalist and unionist parties. The biggest party in either of those sectarian camps nominates the First Minister, and the biggest party in the other camp nominates the Deputy First Minister. Failure of either to nominate means the Executive collapses. Oh, and despite the names, both positions have exactly the same powers.
Such a setup favours the status quo. It gives unionism the power of veto over legislation. The Good Friday Agreement always left the keys to the house in the hands of the unionists.
So what is the problem for the unionists?
With some persuasion, the unionists could agree to allow Sinn Féin a seat at the foot of the table as ‘deputy’ to the unionist First Minister. But a unionist ‘deputy’ while a nationalist Sinn Féin First Minister sits at the head of the table? Such a suggestion is an abomination! It is offensive to the dignity of unionism!
None of the unionist parties would agree to such a thing. Jim Allister of the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) put the unionist attitude more plainly than the rest: “I can tell you this party will never be bridesmaid for Sinn Féin.”
Such displays of unbridled contempt for the nationalist/Catholic population on the part of the unionist politicians drove many more Catholics to the polling stations than would otherwise have been seen. They were determined to spite these arrogant creatures.
That is not to say that everything is rosy in Sinn Féin’s garden. Left-wing candidates from the IRSP and People Before Profit (PBP) might have been squeezed, as were the nationalist SDLP, but PBP’s Gerry Carroll still retained his seat in West Belfast – a seat won in Sinn Féin’s heartland on the back of mounting anger towards austerity back in 2016.
Although masked by polarisation on the national question, there is real anger towards Stormont in general for having done nothing to solve the desperate crisis of the NHS or the crisis of living standards.
For the most part, Sinn Féin’s campaign was very muted. There was plenty of kissing babies and statesman-like language about “working in partnership with others” from Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin vice-president, but not much else.
But Sinn Féin had no need for an aggressive campaign. As Napoleon once said: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” And this election was all about the self-destruction of unionism, which has made every mistake in the book.
Northern Ireland Protocol
“The DUP has done extremely well in this election,” DUP party leader Jeffrey Donaldson remarked. “Unionism has held its ground. The unionist vote remains strong…We have strong foundations and we continue to build on them.”
Talk about putting a brave face on a bad situation! This election was an unmitigated catastrophe for the DUP.
Going into this election, the party found itself in quite a sticky situation. It had already been through three leaders in a year; its latest was being publicly humiliated for trying to jump ship to the UUP (Ulster Unionist Party) just before he became leader; and the party was facing the ire of those who blame it for the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Over the past five years, the DUP has massively overplayed its hand. Having helped prop up Theresa May’s Tory government after 2017, they rejected her soft Brexit that would have prevented a land or sea border between the UK and any part of Ireland. They then feted Boris Johnson, who then proceeded to give them a Brexit with…the Northern Ireland Protocol and an Irish sea border!
Johnson couldn’t have cared less about what the border situation in Ireland looked like, as long as he could elevate himself to power. The NI Protocol allowed him to ‘Get Brexit Done’ in a flash.
Now the Conservative and Unionist Party are being paid back with interest for the games they’ve played with Northern Ireland. They have left unionists bruising with a sense of betrayal, and have accelerated a process of polarisation and fragmentation in their camp.
Immediately before the election, the DUP found themselves caught between two stools: on the one hand, the surging far-right TUV was demanding they collapse the Executive until the Protocol is scrapped. On the other hand, the UUP supported maintaining a government in the North.
The DUP were losing voters in both directions. At the last minute, they collapsed the Executive, and lurched towards the TUV in an effort to grab their hardline voters, touring the anti-Protocol protests in Protestant areas as part of their electoral campaign. They are now being swept along in the riptide of an angry movement with a logic of its own.
Traitors and Lundies
At one anti-Northern Ireland Protocol protest in Lurgan in the run-up to the election, Jeffrey Donaldson and TUV leader Jim Allister were seen taking down a rather ominous poster before the speeches kicked off. Persons unknown had taken an election poster of UUP leader Doug Beattie, and had strung a noose around it.
After making their unsettling find, the two unionist party leaders got on stage and did their bit of tubthumping about the Northern Ireland Protocol. Having finished, another speaker laid into the absent Mr. Beatie, denouncing him as a “traitor” and a “Lundy”.
“I am no Lundy and I am no traitor,” Beattie angrily replied when he got wind of the epithets being used to describe him at these mass protests.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, “Lundy” harks back to a certain 17th century Lieutenant Colonel by the name of Robert Lundy, whose memory has suffered an unenviable fate.
In 1689, during the Williamite Wars, as the City of Derry lay under siege by the supporters of the Catholic King James II, it is alleged that Lt. Col. Lundy did everything he could to undermine the city’s defences from within.
This isn’t the place to assess the role of Robert Lundy, and whether the man has received his just deserts in the history books. Whatever the truth, the legend of Lundy has won a place in unionist mythology. Every year, the Lieutenant Colonel’s effigy is marched up to the place where it is burned: the epitome of a traitor against a people under siege.
Now, loyalists claim, history is repeating itself. The Protestant population are once more under siege, surrounded by enemies; and their politicians, like Lundy, are preparing a sell out. The Northern Ireland Protocol is the first step. The next step is a United Ireland.
The Frankenstein’s monster of Protestant sectarianism, having been whipped up by British imperialism, is now out of control.
It is feeding on a sense of abandonment amongst working-class Protestants – who sense that their communities are in decline; who feel that life is becoming more and more difficult; who feel neglected by the Westminster government and by the politicians that represent them. It is feeding on these sentiments, and using them to create and reinforce a siege mentality.
In decades gone by, the unionist bourgeoisie could afford to give certain relative material benefits to the Protestant workers. But the more meagre the crumbs, the less unionist politicians can offer Protestant workers, and the more tightly must they cling to this one plank of support beneath them: the siege mentality and sectarian bigotry that they have served to whip up.
Raising the political temperature
“We need to politically raise the temperature,” loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson told the same rally. “…peacefully and lawfully,” he quietly added. “And we need to ensure maximum political and societal instability.”
The loyalist demagogues in the North of Ireland understand that the region is littered with inflammable material. Unionists might not have the majority they need to vote down the Northern Ireland Protocol, but they might be able to create a situation on the streets that the British state cannot stomach, forcing them to get rid of the Protocol that way.
The loyalist paramilitaries, who operate with impunity in the North of Ireland, certainly got the message being put out about “raising the temperature” in this election. Unfortunately, they didn’t catch the bit about doing so “peacefully and lawfully”.
On the campaign trail, the sectarians did exactly what one would expect when whipped up by the mob of loyalist rabble-rousers and unionist politicians.
People Before Profit candidate Hannah Kenny was subjected to a vicious assault whilst campaigning in East Belfast, when three men cornered her, grabbed her by the arm and throat, and subjected her to a verbal tirade.
An SDLP candidate, meanwhile, saw her posters pulled down. She was taunted and called a “republican bastard” as she pursued the vandals through Ormeau Park.
Even the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) did their bit to “raise the political temperature”. The Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) – which stood Assembly candidates for the first time in West Belfast and Foyle – found its candidates and their teams subject to a campaign of outright harassment by the state.
The hardening of attitudes among a section of unionists is just one side of the coin. This mood is hardening as anger builds up in working-class Protestant communities, and is misdirected by the political exploiters of those communities.
But the other side of that process of polarisation is reflected in the abandonment of all the unionist parties by another layer.
Not only were the unionist parties fractured, contrary to Jeffrey Donaldson’s claim that “unionism held its ground”, their aggregate first preference votes actually fell by four percentage points.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this was almost the same amount by which the Alliance Party rose. This strange, liberal party – which officially describes itself as neither ‘unionist’ nor ‘nationalist’ – rose to 13.5%, making it the third party in Northern Irish politics, ahead of the UUP (11%) and SDLP (9%).
Some middle-class, Remain-voting layers who are not bothered about the Protocol – and who want political stability and the status quo – no doubt voted for the party for that reason.
But there is undoubtedly also a layer of Protestant youth who are being radicalised to the left; who are sick to death of the bigotry of the established parties; and who have nothing to politically represent them.
Given the topsy-turvy way that politics is refracted through Stormont, no doubt many such young people voted for Alliance for want of anything able to express their political aspirations.
Over to you, Mr Johnson
The Northern Ireland Assembly is now at an impasse. The DUP have made themselves clear: they will not stoop to the indignity of serving as Deputy First Minister until Westminster scraps the NI Protocol.
At least if they get that, they can enter Stormont smug in the assurance that unionist supremacy reigns, whether or not the biggest party in the province is a unionist party.
Hostage to the hardening unionist base upon which they rest, they will certainly find it difficult to enter power at Stormont without first seeing the NI Protocol dead and buried in the grave. To do otherwise would be political suicide.
Does this mean the end of the Good Friday Agreement and power-sharing? Possibly so. The ball is now in Boris Johnson’s court.
In the coming period, Johnson is going to be forced to either overturn the NI Protocol or overhaul the Good Friday Agreement.
In the opinion of one commentator in The Spectator – who seems to be well connected to the Tory cabinet – it’s not certain that the Tories will not overturn the Protocol and risk an all-out trade war with Europe:
“In next week’s Queen’s Speech, a remarkably controversial bill will be announced in the most anodyne language. The government will legislate to protect the Belfast Good Friday agreement in its entirety. These words will be a coded threat to the European Union that the UK is prepared to unilaterally tear up parts of the Brexit deal relating to Northern Ireland.”
If this is intended as a coded threat, The Spectator’s insider in the Tory cabinet decoded it for us:
“We thought the EU would recognise that it suits both of us not to have the Northern Ireland protocol as a source of controversy…Now the ghosts of the 1980s are coming back. We know how this movie ends and we can’t sit back and watch.”
As we have explained before, it is impossible for the EU to compromise on the question of the border. The integrity of the Common Market depends upon controlling what commodities are allowed in and out.
Overturning the NI Protocol may well cause the EU to respond with a full-on trade war, perhaps collapsing the Brexit agreement, leading to the replacement of a sea border in the Irish Sea with a land border on the island of Ireland. “Would Johnson risk that?” The Spectator columnist asks. And answering his own question:
“There are signs he would. The PM has his own political calculations as well. His moments of maximum political potency came when he rallied the forces of Leave: think of the 2016 Brexit referendum and Brexit-dominated campaign for the 2019 general election.”
Would Boris Johnson risk a trade war with Europe and catastrophic damage to the interests of British capitalism? The answer to that question may well depend upon the momentary fortunes of the career of Boris Johnson.
He’s certainly shown himself capable of doing so in the past. And now he’s in a sticky political situation, he may well be ready to light another stick of dynamite in the foundations of British capitalism to keep his career going just a little longer.
It is an indictment of British imperialism that for the short-term gain of its political representatives, the entire Union has been endangered. And there’s no reason to assume that short-termism isn’t with us for the long term!