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Local elections could change the future of Northern Ireland

Polls suggest that Sinn Féin will be the largest party in Northern Ireland for the first time since the Good Friday Agreement

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Early polls for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections have suggested that Sinn Féin could be the largest party. If this poll is correct, then 2022 will be the first time Sinn Féin holds the office of First Minister in Northern Ireland’s history.

The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, states that Northern Ireland’s executive will be power sharing, with the largest party, historically a Unionist party, holding the office of First Minister and the second largest party holding the office of Deputy First Minister. The two roles are equal apart from in title, and one cannot operate without the other, meaning that if one resigns, neither can operate. Ministerial offices within the Executive are then assigned depending on the proportion of seats each party wins in the Assembly.

Currently, there is no fully functioning Northern Ireland executive following the resignation of Paul Givan, the former leader of the DUP and former First Minister. He resigned over the Northern Ireland Protocol which was a result of the Brexit Agreement. It means there are checks on goods arriving at ports in Northern Ireland from Great Britain to keep free movement across the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. This was in order to maintain the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement in which an open border was a key part to ending the Troubles.

The DUP have been protesting this protocol since it was suggested as a solution early in Brexit negotiations to keeping the land border open, despite being the kingmaker for Theresa May’s government signing a confidence and supply agreement after the 2017 election. They have been continually vocal in their opposition, but this does not seem to have contracted them greater support from voters in Northern Ireland. Instead, they have lost support, being blamed for aligning with the government which negotiated the agreement which further separates Northern Ireland from Ireland, going against their core Unionist aim.

Whilst polls in Northern Ireland are hard to collect because of the complex voting system and the geography of the country, these early polls have certainly scared people. It has led people to speculate what will happen should Sinn Féin be the largest party. The DUP haven’t answered the question as to whether they will take the position of Deputy First Minister in this situation yet and it is unlikely they will until it happens if it does. It wouldn’t be surprising though if there is no Executive created after the election on 5 May if Sinn Féin is the largest party.

Other parties are also looking to increase their vote and seat share in this election too. The Alliance party has been steadily growing in recent years, winning 9 percent of the vote in the Assembly elections in 2017, but almost doubling it to 16.8 percent in the 2019 Westminster General Election. Many pundits have said they have a good chance of winning the seats that Sinn Fein or the DUP look like they will lose. The fact that they are categorised as ‘Other’ rather than either Unionist or Nationalist within the Northern Irish Assembly could certainly appeal to some voters- younger voters who don’t have their own memories and alliances from the Troubles or those who aren’t willing to reignite historical divides.

It is also unclear how the British government will respond to a Sinn Féin victory, of course it was always a possibility from when the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was signed, but not a very probable one. The Conservative government is clearly unionist, and the party was essentially in government with the DUP under Theresa May. Therefore, whilst they might respect the result of the election, they will not be pleased about growing Republican sentiment given their intentions to keep the UK together. Recently, on a trip to India, Boris Johnson said that he would not rule out a law which would override the Northern Ireland protocol, perhaps highlighting his Unionist colours before the elections.

If Sinn Féin do win, it will certainly be fortuitous that currently Sinn Fein are the largest party in the Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament. Furthermore, the Taoiseach in Ireland, Micheál Martin, belongs to Fianna Fáil which was one faction of Sinn Fein which split in 1921 following the partition of the island of Ireland. Fianna Fáil was led by Eamonn de Valera who previously led Sinn Féin but did not want the partition of Ireland so split from Sinn Féin and created his own party. Therefore, there is certainly current Republican sentiment in Ireland for Sinn Féin to join if they do win the Northern Irish Assembly elections.

There are considerable ‘what ifs’ in this situation. First of all Sinn Féin need to win before we can even begin answering them, but it will call into the future of the Northern Irish constitution and the unity of the United Kingdom if they do. One thing is for certain though, both main parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin are campaigning strongly for the right to hold the position of First Minister.

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