30 March 2022

The Union won’t be brought down by a Sinn Fein First Minister – but it might be by self-destructive Unionism


Sinn Fein have an unusual relationship with Belfast’s Europa Hotel, where last night they held a packed meeting to launch their Stormont election campaign. They remain political cheerleaders for the IRA who turned the place into the most bombed hotel in Europe during the Troubles. That’s all Semtex under the bridge now though. When challenged about this incongruity a few years ago, a spokesperson said, ‘the hotel and Sinn Fein have a good relationship,’ sentiments not unfamiliar to people trapped in an abusive marriage.

Still, this rally was an impressive sight. Sinn Fein’s notional Northern Leader, Michelle O’Neill addressed an adoring audience. There wasn’t a masked man in sight, which says much for the trust placed in the Europa’s air-conditioning in these plague years. It was time to forget the past, or failing that, delete the embarrassing bits – the love-ins with Putin, calling for the disbandment of Nato – from social media and focus on the future. Or else.

And the future is bright green in electoral terms. The Shinners go into the Assembly elections with recent polls showing them by some margin the voters’ preference at 26% of those asked who they would support. Unionist parties, fractured by their posture on the benighted Northern Ireland Protocol, could only muster a combined 41% of that vote, with the middle ground still held by the non-aligned Alliance party. The remorseless calculus of the sectarian headcount that still dominates local politics, combined with the mandatory coalition arrangements means Sinn Fein are quite likely to be in a position to nominate their leader as First Minister of a part of the UK they spent decades – and their paramilitary wing thousands of innocent lives – trying to break free from. What a time to be alive!

You can forget parsing the complex trade-offs in the 1998 Belfast Agreement that mean the iconic office of First and Deputy First ministers are essentially co-equal. The circular firing squad arrangements for executive government, which guarantees mutual destruction unless there is consensus between its two biggest parties, pales into insignificance in the face of this psychological earthquake.

The post-98 changes that mean nomination to these posts by the two strongest parties on vote strength, rather than their election by the whole assembly, is a high watermark of hubris that will haunt the DUP. The reality of a republican Sinn Fein First Minister sitting in Parliament buildings, the very cockpit of once unassailable Unionist domination, is simply extraordinary. The consequences are unforeseeable and many of them potentially explosive.

Northern Ireland’s young loyalist population, unbloodied by the ‘hot war’ of the Troubles, is already restive, railing against what they see as the death of their British birthright by a thousand cuts. For them and those that animate this rage, the Protocol is merely the thick end of a wedge of concessions to Republicans since the Belfast Agreement of 1998 brought Sinn Fein into the world of politics without murder. Reckless elements within Unionism, alarmed by a seismic shift in identity politics from orange to green, with a fair chunk of ‘a plague on both your houses’ in between, are radicalising a hand-me-down paranoia.

This fever pitch culminated in a recent hoax bomb attack on the Republic of Ireland’s Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, as he attended a cross-community event in North Belfast. While there are perfectly good reasons for wanting to replace a bodge-job Protocol that separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK in trading terms, outsourcing this anger by sending working class youngsters to prison for terrorism isn’t one of them. Mind you, hearing a Northern Ireland Secretary reluctantly admit that NI legislation on language and culture is being held up by objections to the word ‘British’ plays right into the hands of those who feel their constitutional foundations collapsing underneath them. 

Headcount Protestant Unionism as a guarantor of the Union is toast. The census data, collected on the centenary of Northern Irelands birth, that will be available soon might show that in raw numbers those born in a Protestant tradition at parity with or even outstripped by those born Catholic or neither. This will be another psychological blow for Unionism, but it should certainly not be fatal.

The noisy and incessant campaign for ‘inevitable’ Irish unity on the basis of shifting demographics is repeatedly gutted by opinion polls. People of all tribes and none care much more about potholes, education and healthcare than the uncosted fantasies of a partisan coalition of academics and republican activists would suggest. The British identity, as opposed to religion of birth, is by far the dominant self-designation of the Province’s population and will likely remain so far into the future. 

On that basis alone it would be crazy for political Unionism to try to bring down the assembly as a result of being confronted by democratic reality and, let’s be clear, their own howling strategic incompetence. But it’s far from unimaginable.

I can’t conceive of what it’s like to sit in a legislative assembly beside people from Sinn Fein who were former terrorists and who otherwise defend and worship violent extremists who murdered their neighbours in some of the most barbaric circumstances imaginable. Far too little is made of the enormous sacrifices democrats of all parties in the Assembly have had to make in the interests of peace to sit down with people who still believe that murdering Irish civilians and police officers on their doorsteps, outside churches, on their farms, in shops and restaurants was ‘justified.’

Can you imagine this working in any other devolved assembly outside the moral Upside Down of Northern Ireland? But electoral facts don’t care about feelings. The Union won’t be imperilled by a Sinn Fein First Minister who must take her place, if that turns out to be the will of the people. It will be destroyed by Unionists who internalise their anger into self-destruction, and who fail to reach out beyond the laager to allies in the Republic and Great Britain who have just as much interest in curtailing the nativist bigotry of Sinn Fein from wrecking an imperfect, incomplete but enduring peace settlement.

Northern Ireland’s frequent polling seasons have familiar rhythms – the smell of burning election posters, the sound of bricks through windows, the rattling of sabres. What’s new is the distinct threat or the promise – depending on your standpoint – of a Republican First Minister. In a place where the past is always in front of you, these are anxious times for ordinary people still ensnared and disfigured by ancient enmities. Much will depend on how political unionism responds to this, if it does come to pass. Generosity is not weakness. Intransigence is not strength. Democracy is not conditional. The Union is only in danger from Unionists. It’s time for cool heads.

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.