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The most recent Assembly election in Northern Ireland (NI) has produced a result of some considerable interest: for the first time one of the ‘nationalist’ parties – Sinn Fein (SF) – has won the largest number of seats. The party gained 29% of the first-preference votes (up by 1.1%); the system of proportional representation is used rather than the first-past-the-post system that is used in UK-wide general elections. The leading ‘unionist’ party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – hitherto the largest single party – saw its share of the vote drop by 6.7% to 21.3%.

NI has existed as a polity since 1921, when the UK government created it by separating six of Ulster’s nine counties from the other 26 counties on the island of Ireland. This occurred one year before the Irish War of Independence led to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, thereby cementing the partition of the island initiated by the creation of NI. (The Free State later chose for itself a new constitution and became the Republic of Ireland.)

A short explanation of the causes of the partition would focus on the fact of a society divided into a polar binary: the majority – initially close to 60 % – of the population of the newly created NI identified as Protestant (mainly Presbyterian) and ‘unionist’/’loyalist’ (referring to support for the continued union with Great Britain), whereas the minority – initially just over 40% – identified as Catholic and ‘nationalist’/’republican’ (nationalist meaning Irish nationalist, i.e. favouring a break with Great Britain and a future union with the southern Irish polity; republican in the sense of favouring a republican system of government over a monarchical one). It is worth pointing out that the former camp could be described as British or UK nationalist: this is a situation defined by a clash of two nationalisms, with religious identities historically coinciding in catastrophic fashion with the rival nationalist identities. In this way, Northern Ireland bears striking resemblance to other later equally disastrous examples of partition favoured by the British Empire in its waning years, for example India/Pakistan (1947) and Israel/Palestine (1948).

Unionism dominated the NI polity for the decades between the 1920s and the 1960s, and those decades saw an attendant systematic discrimination against the Catholic population, for example in the areas of jobs and housing, as well as an often open and at times violent triumphalism on the part of the majority unionist population. In the late 1960s a civil rights protest movement met with violent reaction on the part of hardline unionists – and the long so-called ‘Troubles’ broke out, a term that refers to the violence that dominated NI life between the late 1960s and the mid-1990s, when armed paramilitary organisations on each side of the politico-religious divide unleashed often spectacular violence against civilians of the ‘opposing’ community – and also, in the case of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), whose political arm was SF, and other Catholic nationalist paramilitary groups, against members of the British armed forces stationed in NI as well as members of the NI police force (the Royal Irish Constabulary or RUC). A detailed analysis of the period of the Troubles lies outside the scope of this article.

A brief examination of the political parties that have been the most significant forces in the realm of electoral politics:

  • The Unionist side of the divide has been represented by two parties: The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), founded in 1905; and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), founded in 1971 not long after the start of the ‘Troubles’. The UUP has been the senior player in NI unionist politics until recent times. The DUP is more extreme than the UUP on the national question, more palpably sectarian, and also more culturally and socially conservative – it draws significant support from Presbyterian religious fundamentalist opinion, with attendant staunch opposition to abortion and support for such things as conversion therapy for LGBTQ people.
  • The ‘Nationalist’ side of the divide has been represented by two parties: The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), founded in 1970; and Sinn Fein (SF). The SDLP, as its name implies, has historically taken positions on a range of social issues, though it has also clearly identified as a ‘nationalist’ party. SF has focused more closely than the SDLP on the very existence of the NI state, though in recent times it has broadened its platform and identifies as a party on the left, as does the SDLP.
  • There is a long and complicated history connected to the name SF. The original SF was founded in 1905 and split into two parties – Fianna Fail (FF) and Fine Gael (FG) – over disagreements in regard to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Modern SF has its origins in the 1940s and has been connected to the modern Irish Republican Army (IRA), to be distinguished from the IRA which fought against the British Army in the War of Independence between 1916 and 1921. In 1970 modern SF split in two – ‘Official’ SF and ‘Provisional’ SF as a result of disagreements over a number of issues, including whether or not to end SF’s policy of abstentionism (the party had fought general elections in both the UK and RoI but had declined to take up their seats, since SF did not recognise the legitimacy of either polity). Official SF became SF the Workers’ Party, which in 1977 dropped the SF label becoming simply The Workers’ Party, a party that was much more successful electorally in the RoI than in NI; this party split in 1992 with six of its seven TDs (members of the RoI Dáil or lower chamber) forming a new party known as Democratic Left, later again merging with the Labour Party. ‘Provisional’ SF became known simply as SF, and continued to be the political wing of the ‘Provisional’ IRA (which is mostly referred to nowadays simply as the IRA).
  • The Alliance Party (AP), founded in 1970, is the only major party in NI that draws its support from both sides of the divide that dominates the polity (a divide that is defined by a clash of nationalisms rather than the more usual left/right divide seen in most modern countries). It is generally seen as liberal and centrist. Its website declares that it is “proudly liberal, progressive and internationalist” and that the party was founded with the express objective of “healing the bitter divisions” in NI society. Through most of its history it has attained somewhere between 3 and 6% of the popular vote. In the election of 2022 its vote share has jumped to 13.5%, and it has overtaken two other major parties in the NI Assembly (one unionist party and one ‘nationalist’). Three AP Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) openly identify as gay.

Most readers will be familiar with the NI ‘peace process’, initiated by the IRA ceasefire of 1994 and cemented by the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Under the terms of this agreement, negotiated by all major NI parties, with significant roles played by the UK, RoI and US governments, devolved executive power in NI (based at Stormont in Belfast) was henceforth to be shared across the political divide. Parties must designate themselves ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’, with the largest unionist party and the largest ‘nationalist’ party sharing the newly created joint office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister and with the possibility that MLAs representing other parties take up other ministerial roles. The first such joint office in the initial aftermath of the Good Friday agreement paired David Trimble, the leader of the UUP, and Seamus Mallon, the deputy leader of the SDLP (deputed to the office by the SDLP’s leader John Hume).

The first post 1998 power-sharing executive at Stormont lasted from 1998 to 2002. The executive was suspended from 2002 until 2007, with NI being governed directly from Westminster in this period. By the time the second executive was formed in 2007, opinion in NI had radicalised in both communities (unionist/Protestant nationalist/Catholic), with the more extreme parties in both communities, the DUP and SF, surpassing the more moderate parties (the UUP and the SDLP). From 2007 until 2022, the DUP and SF have maintained their positions as the two largest parties in NI, with the DUP in first place and the SF second – until the election of 2022 after which their positions have been reversed with SF gaining the largest number of seats, the DUP becoming the second largest. Just as in the period between 1998 and 2007, in the period after 2007 the two parties have often found it difficult to agree terms sufficiently to allow each to continue to work alongside the other; hence there have been many and lengthy periods in which the NI executive has been suspended leading to periods of direct rule from Westminster.

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The results of the 2022 Assembly elections are as follows (the total is 90 seats) – SF: 27; DUP: 25; AP: 17; UUP: 9; SDLP: 8; Independents: 4.

Of the four independents elected, three are unionists and the remaining one belongs to a leftist party, People Before Profit (PBP). Thus, despite the fact that SF is the single largest party, unionists outnumber nationalists by 37 to 36, with 18 MLAs (those belonging to AP and PBP) refusing to identify either as unionist or nationalist. This means, among other things, that the prospect of a border poll (a vote on the dissolution of the border between NI and the RoI with the potential for the consequent unification of Ireland) still remains distant. The terms of the 1998 peace agreement state that a border poll should be triggered by the UK government’s Secretary for Northern Ireland only if that person considers that a vote in favour of dismantling the border is likely; that is not the case as of now despite SF’s success in the 2022 election.

SF and PBP are the only two parties with representation in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. In the RoI election of 2020 SF won 37 seats of a total of 160, making it the second largest party in RoI behind FF with 38; in the same election PBP won five seats. For analysis of that election, see my article on the IMHO website here: https://imhojournal.org/articles/the-irish-general-election-of-february-2020/.

The 2022 election can be considered ‘historic’ (a generally over-used word) for several reasons. One obvious reason is that for the first time a ‘nationalist’ party – indeed, a party expressly in favour of NI leaving the UK and uniting with the RoI – has won more seats than any other party. Perhaps even more significant than this fact, however, is that the results make it clear that an increasing number of NI voters (as evidenced most obviously by the relative success of the AP) do not wish to be defined by the old sectarian binary.

Opinion polls suggest that it is not merely AP voters who are dissatisfied by options presented as a binary; it can be persuasively argued that significant numbers of voters who cast their votes for other parties or for independents are considering an increasingly wide number of factors, even if in some cases eventual voting decisions indicate support for a unionist or nationalist option. The journalist Susan Mackay offers this commentary on the election in an article of 8th May in The Guardian newspaper:

‘This election has simplified the political landscape, while also making it more interesting, not least because of the massive success of Alliance, which has emerged as the third largest party. It takes no position on the constitutional question and draws voters from unionist, nationalist and other backgrounds. Alliance used to be the party that “nice” unionists said they voted for when they didn’t want to admit they voted for the Reverend Ian Paisley [the founder and long-time leader of the DUP whose anti-Catholic rhetoric sparked extreme violence against Catholics at the outset of the Troubles]. Under the confident and progressive leadership of Naomi Long, it has attracted a broad range of people, including many young people from the Protestant community who have rejected the DUP’s fundamentalism and intransigence.’

The trend that can be detected in voters’ concerns highlights a serious structural problem in NI politics: the post-peace agreement rules of engagement insist on the same defining sectarian binary that operated in NI from its inception right through the years of the ‘Troubles’. The peace agreement can be seen as a success in that sectarian violence has all but come to an end, and since 1998 parties on either side of NI’s particular divide have been able to work together to govern for significant amounts of time. However, the terms under which power-sharing operates – insisting on the pairing of parties that self-identify as unionist and nationalist – would appear to ‘lock in’ a way of defining issues that is likely to be increasingly at odds with the multi-various concerns of an ever larger section of voters. The DUP, representing 21.3% of the popular vote, is empowered (by the rules in place) to block the formation of a new executive despite the fact that parties representing well over 70% of the popular vote believe in forming the executive as quickly as possible.

Brexit and the post-Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU provide an important context for this election. The DUP was the only major party in NI that supported Brexit in the UK-wide referendum of 2016. The majority of NI’s voters rejected Brexit in that referendum. The significance of Brexit for Ireland in its entirety is stark: now the border between the RoI and NI also constitutes a border between the EU and a country that is no longer in the EU. Negotiations around a trade deal have been extensive and protracted. The so-called ‘NI Protocol’ agreed in principle by both the UK and the EU effectively draws a trade barrier down the Irish Sea (between the islands of Ireland and Britain), thereby avoiding the need for a ‘hard’ border – one with customs posts – between the RoI and NI. Re-instituting a hard border would strike a body-blow to much that has been achieved by the peace agreement. However, within unionist opinion the Protocol is distasteful because for the purposes of trade it separates NI from the rest of the UK, thereby weakening the cherished union.

Boris Johnson’s Conservative government in the UK has changed its position on the Protocol on a number of occasions, and at the time of writing it appears poised to take unilateral action to change the terms of the Protocol – an intention that has been roundly criticised by the EU and by the government of the RoI. The DUP too has changed its position on the Protocol on several occasions, and currently its leadership has stated that unless the Protocol is reformed or even dismantled then the DUP will not allow the new executive to be formed in the NI assembly. The UK government has stated publicly that it is in favour of a quick re-forming of the Stormont executive; yet its own position on the Protocol makes this outcome all but impossible. This impasse will not be ended until after further rounds of negotiation between the UK government and the EU, with the US government likely to weigh in also.

To conclude on the significance of the 2022 election: I have argued previously that SF is more a populist party than a party genuinely of the left. That being the case, the election should not be regarded as a significant victory of the left. However, there is reason to be optimistic about the success of the centrist AP, as that success points most optimistically in the direction of a breakdown of the religious nationalist binary that has been the appalling chief hallmark of the NI statelet since its inception.

Crossposted from the International Marxist-Humanist Organization