Ireland voted in local council elections on 5 May. In Northern Ireland, voters were going to the polls to elect members to the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. As many had predicted, there was a historic win for Sinn Féin. It was the first time a nationalist party had topped the polls in Northern Ireland since the devolved administration was established in 1998.
However, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) continues to boycott the assembly over its objections to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which they claim creates a border in the Irish Sea. In fairness, it is worth noting that Sinn Féin boycotted Stormont in 2017 over a green heating scheme.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Assembly requires the two largest nationalist and unionist parties to sit in the assembly for it to function. Therefore, the DUP’s stance has led to the breakdown of the assembly once more in Northern Ireland. This has created paralysis in the region as budgets and broader assembly duties cannot be carried out. As a result, the NHS in Northern Ireland has some of the lengthiest waiting lists in the United Kingdom. The success of Sinn Féin has widely been attributed to their focus on these waiting times, along with the cost-of-living crisis.
Some commentators have suggested Sinn Fein's success means a united Ireland is closer to becoming a reality. However the answer, as always, is not a simple yes or no, but nuanced.
When one looks at the first preference vote share from the May elections, Sinn Féin only increased their share by 1.1 percent on their 2017 performance and did not gain additional seats. The DUP, on the other hand, saw their vote share fall by 6.7 percent with a loss of three seats. This raises the question as to where the DUP vote went. The answer seems to be the Alliance Party – a cross-community party – which saw its vote share increase by 4.5 percent and gain an additional nine seats compared with their 2017 performance. From looking at the results, there is no apparent shift to nationalist parties, with voters preferring to support non-partisans.
This would seem to be supported by the latest assessment of feelings towards a united Ireland. The 2021 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, released on 26 May, showed support for a united Ireland was at 34 percent, broadly in line with the nationalist parties’ vote share and likely influenced by the pandemic and post-Brexit issues. Support for unification had only increased by 7 percent compared with when the question was first asked in 2002, although 2021 shows a 4 percent increase in favour of unification compared with 2020.
As Sinn Féin did not dramatically increase their voter base and gained no additional seats, these election results reveal not a desire for a united Ireland but a different conclusion. Unsurprisingly, the Northern Irish care most about getting the NHS waiting times down in the country and resolving the cost-of-living crisis. Sinn Féin campaigned on these issues, but so did the Alliance Party.
Meanwhile, the DUP dug themselves ever further into their anti-protocol hole. However, the catch twenty-two with these issues is that to get the currently stalled funding package ratified in Stormont, the DUP needs to be in the assembly and so, to an extent, they need to be placated.
This is a pragmatic suggestion when one understands that the DUP have got themselves into this position because they want Northern Ireland to be treated like the rest of the United Kingdom. However, suggestions initially made by Boris Johnson to act unilaterally on the Northern Ireland protocol were unhelpful when trying to convince the EU of the need to reopen discussions on solving the issue. This threat seems to have subsided with Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, suggesting that she preferred joint action over unilateral on a recent visit to County Antrim.
Looking forward, the suggestions around “green-lanes” for goods travelling between Britain and Northern Ireland seem helpful, and the most likely to receive backing from Brussels. This proposal is designed to reduce the border checks on goods entering Northern Ireland so that only those travelling onwards into the Republic, and EU, are subject to EU checks. Suppose the EU accepts this alteration, which seems probable. In that case, it could prove a significant step to the DUP returning to Stormont as goods for Northern Ireland would be treated like other goods within the rest of the United Kingdom and not as if they were entering the EU.
Overall, the historic win for Sinn Féin in the Stormont elections does not mean that a united Ireland is closer. However, it highlights that the Northern Irish want their politicians to focus on issues directly affecting them, something the DUP did not seem to realise with its focus on the protocol.
The rise of the Alliance Party should be a warning to both the DUP and Sinn Féin. It highlights a shift among younger voters in the province who no longer wish to primarily identify themselves as either nationalist or unionist. Ultimately, the issues with the protocol need to be ironed out so that the DUP feel they can return to Stormont without losing face and so release Northern Ireland from the paralysis that the people have endured since 2017. If these issues cannot be resolved, it may bring a united Ireland closer. Something the DUP would be kicking themselves over if it was their stubbornness on the protocol that led to unification.