Michael Doyle argues that Sinn Fein has skilfully adapted to the post Good Friday political landscape. But has this prepared the party for the immense challenges of a campaign for Irish unification?
The Northern Ireland state was established 101 years ago as a Unionist state for a Unionist people. For the first 77 years of the state’s existence until the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), the ‘Orange State’ suppressed the Nationalist community as second-class citizens, who were regarded as the enemy within. Now, remarkably, Sinn Fein, who until the GFA refused to recognise the legitimacy of the partitioned parliament in Stormont, are the biggest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Sinn Fein’s stunning victory is the culmination of a political strategy that has responded more skilfully to post-Troubles Northern Ireland than Unionism and their political rivals in the Nationalist community, the SDLP. Unionism has never adjusted to the ending of the 1921-1972 Stormont Parliament; its siege mentality was greatly accentuated by the Westminster Parliament taking direct control of Northern Ireland, and fears that the UK government would sell them out or come to a compromise with Irish Republicanism. The latter occurred with the GFA, and since then, Unionism has been riven with internecine conflicts which have resulted in a plethora of parties competing for political hegemony within Unionism. The Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party split from the DUP after the latter decided to enter into a power-sharing agreement with Sinn Fein in 2007. Unionism has been unable to come to terms with a power-sharing compromise with Sinn Fein because the party’s ultimate objective is to end the partitionist settlement of 1921, which has and continues to define Unionism.
Sinn Fein has skilfully manipulated Unionism’s crisis. David Trimble was consistently outmanoeuvred by his republican opponents on the issue of decommissioning IRA weapons. By perpetually delaying decommissioning and refusing minimal transparency, Sinn Fein destabilised Trimble and the UUP, which lost its dominant position within Unionism to the DUP in 2003. Sinn Fein acquiesced to the demands set out by the DUP in 2007: recognising the rule of law, unequivocal support for the Northern Ireland police service and full and transparent decommissioning of IRA weapons. In 1998, Sinn Fein could not have entered Stormont and agreed to these demands: the balance of political forces was not favourable to the then leadership who undertook a monumental effort to persuade the republican base just to accept the GFA, which was seen by many as an acknowledgement that the IRA had failed to achieve its goal of a united Ireland through physical force. By the 2000s, the people of Northern Ireland had begun to adjust to a society where bombings and shootings were not a daily occurrence. Though ‘peace walls’ spread across Belfast and community separation continued, people could move more freely without being held up at security roadblocks. Even if the Sinn Fein leadership wanted to abandon the political path to a united Ireland, it was simply not feasible given their electoral hegemony in the nationalist community, and a widespread desire for a peaceful way forward. The only option was to pursue the political path.
But taking this has meant Sinn Fein making pragmatic shifts that would delay rather than hasten their goal of a united Ireland. One notable argument made by the Remain side during the EU referendum in 2016 was that Brexit would hasten a united Ireland. Given its historic Euroscepticism, particularly acute from 2008 to 2011 when the EU deepened integration and imposed austerity on Ireland, and given the capacity for Brexit to heighten the contradictions of the partitionist settlement, one might have thought that Sinn Fein would support Brexit. Instead, the party took a soft Remain stance that was based on protecting the GFA, opportunistically siding with the majority of Northern Irish voters who were in favour of remaining and taking the opposite position to the Unionist parties that were all in favour of Brexit. Whilst the Brexit deal has done huge damage to Unionism’s relationship with the UK government and brought into question the viability of Northern Ireland remaining in the UK, Sinn Fein has not been tarnished by Brexit.
Whilst the DUP railed against the British government for negotiating a deal which differentiates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and spent the recent election campaign complaining about technicalities in the Brexit agreement, Sinn Fein focused on the salient issues: cost of living, housing and the energy crisis. Whilst Sinn Fein has changed their top personnel, bringing forward younger figures with no previous association with the years of armed struggle, the upper echelons of the DUP remain largely unchanged from the 1990s. Sinn Fein is able to offer a vision of the future, whilst Unionism remain shackled to the past. In sum, Sinn Fein have managed to adapt to political challenges since the GFA in a way the UUP and DUP have not.
But there is more to the achievement of a united Ireland than strong electoral performances. The Unionist establishment is crumbling, but the two states which between them underpin partition – the Republic of Ireland and the UK – are not. These state regimes are not accountable to electorates.
While Sinn Fein’s electoral successes have opened the way to a constitutional challenge for a united Ireland, they have also brought into view the contradictions in the mainstream republican movement, exemplified in the drift towards support for the EU, itself traditionally hostile to movements for radical constitutional change at a nation state level. The many debates which have marked the evolution of Sinn Fein, from revolutionary movement to leadership of the northern state, are set to continue and intensify in coming years.