SINN FÉIN’S success in last week’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections was effectively a reprise of Ian Paisley’s old slogan of ‘Ulster Says No’. No to Brexit, that is. Antipathy towards Brexit drove nationalist voters to the polls in significantly higher numbers.
In classical rhetoric, successful argument is based on three criteria:
The logos or rational argument, which was Brexit.
The ethos, which is character, and was based for Sinn Féin on a juxtaposition of an absent Martin McGuinness and an ever present Michelle O’Neill compared with a cornered, belligerent Arlene Foster.
Finally there is pathos or an appeal to emotion.
Equality was an emotional summary and an effective pull for the party based on the attitude of an openly contemptuous DUP. A caveat is it was not simply argument, but organisation as well that delivered for the party.
Irony underlies Sinn Féin’s positioning and success. The fact of an election was the great gift given them by the DUP. It need not have been. Sinn Féin seized the opportunity, partly to reassert its credential among its own voters.
Secondly, there is a double irony in Sinn Féin benefiting from antipathy to Brexit, given their own hostility to the EU in every referendum here for a generation.
Nationalists did vote to remain last year but on a lower turnout. There was no visceral response from the Sinn Féin heartlands on that occasion and the fabled party organisation was underwhelming. However, that was then and last week Sinn Féin benefited by playing the EU card in opposition to irredentist unionism and little England toryism. In contrast, the DUP’s pro-Brexit position hasn’t carried the day among its higher income voters, and some of them clearly either stayed at home, or voted Alliance last week.
It is difficult to overestimate the scale of the setback for the DUP, and the potentially historic implications for unionism. It is not that the debacle — which was entirely avoidable — isn’t partly reversible, should the DUP regain its composure. It is that in any event things will never be the same again.
Even if DUP dominance is reasserted for a period again, unionism is no longer automatically preeminent. There is no reason to believe, however, that the DUP can readily realign itself. The historic opportunity for unionism after the Good Friday Agreement was to adopt a position of relaxed benignity, assured that the union was trebly guaranteed by Westminster, by its own majority and paradoxically for the first time by both the nationalist minority and Dublin. This essentially was the dissident republican analysis. The last assembly election in 2016 had been unprepossessing for Sinn Féin. Turnout was low and the party vote declined 2.9%. Disillusion was evident. People Before Profit made an appearance in its heartlands. Its hegemony was fraying at the edges and the Adams/McGuiness leadership was ageing and becoming stale for some younger, and indeed some older nationalists. Last week’s result, therefore, was a rejuvenation, based on Brexit and the maladroitness of the DUP. Events were masterfully exploited by Sinn Féin.
Supporting Brexit was both an expression of genuine sentiment by the DUP heartland, as distinct from the larger unionist coalition it had accumulated. But it was also, at least by some, a bigger and longer play. They know that any change in the customs union resulting from Brexit, must result in some former of border across the island. It would, therefore, be a winding back of the Good Friday Agreement which was based on the premise that because both the UK and republic are in the EU, the border could virtually disappear. The culmination of that strategy now would, in fact, be the reimposition of direct rule. Enoch Powell and James Molyneaux may be dead, but a view that ultimately the union can only be guaranteed not just by Westminster, but in Westminster, is not extinct. For them, the ignominious loss of hegemony at Stormont is proof of the futility of letting the enemy in the gate, via the Good Friday Agreement. For now all the evidence is that the DUP is a firmly devolutionist party. But maintaining devolution will require compromise it has not proved capable of under its current leadership. By leadership, I refer to a wider group of people than Arlene Foster alone.
The issue now is what next. There are still two weeks in the three-week period remaining before direct rule kicks in, should a new devolved administration prove impossible. There is every reason to suppose that deadline would be extended. There is nothing to be had except heartache for the British government in reinstituting direct rule. And there are practicalities. The Northern Ireland Office is depleted and lacks the capacity to switch on direct rule effectively, and that is entirely separate from any consideration of the political consequences.
The Irish Government would wish to avoid it too. Time, even a short space, would mean that the ongoing inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive or “cash for ash” scheme is further advanced, and its outcome nearer. Playing for time, therefore, would be in the interest of both parties. The underlying questions are two-fold. The first for the DUP is whether, they are prepared to create some sort of fudge to allow Arlene Foster continue to lead the party, while not serving as first minister. Secondly, whether Sinn Féin really want the responsibility of government again at this juncture. Sustaining a continuous low- to medium-level crisis, would keep the spotlight on them as they compete south of the border. It is here that they face their next election.
DUE to circumstances, Martin McGuiness has left the main political stage. A key issue now, regardless of his future role behind the scenes, is when Gerry Adams similarly leaves, and whether he does so before the next election. It seems Mary Lou McDonald will succeed him. The magnetic pull of power first augments, but then gradually replaces the discipline of struggle, in movements that transition from conflict to government. How long that process takes for Sinn Féin, the next journey it is embarking on, is anyone’s guess. McDonald has already spoken of the need for ‘conversation’ on coalition within her party. That will be the moment when Sinn Féin must pivot from exploiting alienation to delivering cohesion.
There is no tribal base in the south, only fluid support that famously deserts those who leave the barricades for the Cabinet table. The reality behind last week’s electoral achievement was that based on the 2016 Assembly election corrosion had already begun. But events intervened. Now, this week, the union is weaker both in Northern Ireland because of the election result, and within Britain because of Brexit. Sinn Féin is on the front foot. But now it has come so far in, it is at the edge of the centre. Whether that is Promised Land, or quicksand, remains to be seen.