Sinn Fein’s victory in becoming Northern Ireland’s largest party is being greeted by the UK and international media as a sea-change in one of the western world’s potential flashpoints. The BBC says breathlessly that it is a political shift of historical proportions. After a hundred years of continuous Unionist majorities the prospect of an ex-paramilitary republican party coming out on top has a powerful symbolism but no more than that.
Far from gaining ground, Sinn Fein are where they were in popular support. It is true that its support did not fall back, as some inaccurate polls suggested, but it has not risen as media excitement would suggest. Sinn Fein’s 29.0% share of first preference votes this week is actually lower than its 29.4% in the 2017 General Election and only marginally higher than the 27.9% it received in the last Assembly Election also in 2017. It may be substantially higher than the rather poor 22.4% gained in the 2019 General Election, but the point is that its current support is not at all unprecedented. Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol have helped Sinn Fein but only to the extent of reaching a plateau of support with a vote share in the high 20s.
We should also note that the nationalist vote remains smaller than the unionist vote. Small parties and independents make calculation difficult but as far as I can tell unionist candidates gained 42.2% of first preference votes this week against nationalists 40.9%. The centrist Alliance and Green parties gained 15.4%. Much of what happened was a shuffling of votes between parties within the respective blocks. The moderate nationalist SDLP had a bad election gaining only 9% and falling well back on its 11.9% share in the last Assembly Election despite its youthful leader Colum Eastwood being something of a media darling in Northern Ireland.
With the complex count now completed Sinn Fein have 27 seats to the DUP’s 25 but things are not what they seem. Parties must designate in the Assembly as unionist, nationalist or other. The results show unionists as the largest block with 37 seats while the nationalists have 35 and others have 18. Under the rules of the Good Friday Agreement this would have provided a unionist first minster. It was only a change in these rules under the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement which allows the largest single party to claim this post.
Sinn Fein’s emergence as the largest party reflects the fracturing of the vote across a range of unionist parties. A third of the DUP’s 2017 votes went, this week, to a more right-wing alternative, the True Unionist Voice (TUV) led by the barrister Jim Allister. For many years the TUV has been a one-man band but the Protocol has boosted its vote to 7.5% although it gained only one seat in the 90-strong Assembly because the party received few second or subsequent preferences under the complex STV system. Taking the DUP together with the TUV plus one renegade DUP MLA now registered as an independent gives rightwing unionism a 30% share of first preferences one point ahead of Sinn Fein. The moderate unionist UUP is also ahead of the moderate nationalist SDLP.
The media excitement also ignores that gaining the position of First Minister gives Sinn Fein no more power than it has had for years as Deputy First Minister. The two posts are essentially joint first minsters and may as well be labelled as such. All major decisions are made jointly, and in my time as special advisor to First Minister David Trimble every Executive meeting was proceeded by last-minute bargaining on outstanding differences of policy and practice.
Excitement about Northern Ireland’s politics always rises if the perceived middle ground gains momentum whether it is integrated schooling, the women’s coalition or support for the Alliance party. The Alliance’s 13.5% share of first preferences is four points up on 2017 but it gains a bit of this from a fall in support for the Green Party. Its 17 seats also reflect a large number of second preferences. That the centrist block has got a little larger, gives liberals some heart that the zero-sum game of Ulster politics is melting. There is something in this, as young professionals on both sides get fed up with the main parties banging on about the union or Irish unity, but the Alliance cannot wish away the fundamental zero-sum reality of Northern Ireland identity politics.
Indeed, it is the supposed imminence of a border poll on Irish unity which underlies much of the excitement, but this is completely misplaced. Polls put support for Irish unity variously at between 25% and 45% with the probable truth somewhere around 30%. This would mean a two-to one victory for remaining in the union in the unlikely event of a border poll being called. Like the SNP in Scotland, Sinn Fein will huff and puff about a border poll to keep the issue alive but cannot risk an actual referendum without clear polling support for their position. The Sinn Fein leadership in Dublin hopes for a poll with five years.
The final reason why excitement about Sinn Fein is overdone is that there will be no Assembly or First Minister unless the Protocol is replaced. Since the EU looks implacably opposed to replacement, the result is stalemate. The Protocol may have wrecked the Good Friday Agreement’s institutions but Brussels is in no mood to recognize this and in this blinkered stance they have the backing of America’s Democrats. By securing second place in the polls the DUP can prevent the Assembly meeting and through this they have found an effective way to block the Protocol. Downing Street says it is on course to unilaterally override the Protocol if a final attempt at mediation with Brussels fails and a statement in next week’s Queens Speech will presage legislation now being drafted. Unionists will believe this when then see it, but Jeffery Donaldson’s statement that ‘you can have the Good Friday Agreement or the Protocol but not both’ provides a powerful incentive for the UK Government to take action.
Dr Graham Gudgin was Special Advisor to First Minster David Trimble in the NI Assembly 1998-2002 A shortened version of this aricle was published in the Daily Telegraph on May 9th.