History | Geography

Shockwaves as Sinn Féin promises a new era

Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, and Irish republican Sinn Fein party Northern Leader Michelle O'Neill reacts with part Leader Mary Lou McDonald, after the count at the Magherafelt Meadowbank sports centre in Magherafelt, Co Londonderry, on May 7, 2022

Should Ireland be united? Sinn Féin is committed to taking Northern Ireland out of the UK and into a new future. With its election win last weekend, the dream is getting closer. Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou Macdonald were jubilant. Their party, Sinn Féin, had just emerged as the winner in the Northern Ireland elections. It put O'Neill on course to become the first minister in the country’s assembly. No woman – and no republican – has held the post before. “Today represents a very significant moment of change,” she declared. “It’s a defining moment for our politics and our people.” Sinn Féin won 27 seats, two more than its closest rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). According to opinion polls, it is also the most popular party in the Republic of Ireland – though it is not in government there. Ultimately, it hopes to win power both north and south of the border and unite Ireland. It has said that it would like to see a referendum on the matter in the next five to ten years. But there are plenty of challenges to overcome first. Northern Ireland was created by the British government in 1921 with a border designed to ensure a permanent majority of Protestants who wanted to remain part of the UK. The Protestant Unionists took advantage of this to run the country for their own benefit, treating the Catholic minority as second-class citizens. In 1967 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was founded to end such discrimination. But it met with violent opposition from Protestants, resulting in the two decades of bloodshed known as the Troubles. Terrorists emerged on both sides, with many Catholics supporting the IRA and many Protestants supporting groups such as the UVF. Peace was finally achieved in 1989 through the Good Friday Agreement, and a power-sharing government of Unionists and republicans was established at Stormont. Until Thursday, the Unionists had won every election. But their support for a hard Brexit – even though Northern Ireland as a whole voted to remain in the EU – and steady growth in the Catholic population, have undermined their position. The Good Friday Agreement states that a referendum should be held if the majority of Northern Irish voters seem likely to support unification with the Republic. However, the person who decides this is a member of the British government, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland – and the present one is against such a vote. It is not clear, in any case, that Sinn Féin will be able to form a government. To do so, it needs the co-operation of the DUP, which is refusing to give it unless the Northern Ireland protocol is dropped. Nor is it clear that Sinn Féin would win a referendum. An opinion poll last month found that only 37% of people in Northern Ireland wanted a united Ireland. Enthusiasm in the Republic is limited too, with 43% of people saying they oppose the idea. Sinn Féin’s triumph could also be short-lived. The DUP only lost because supporters defected to other Unionist parties. And the biggest advances were made by the Alliance Party, which seeks to bridge the divide between Unionists and republicans. Should Ireland be united? Border reorder Yes: It is the only thing that makes geographical sense. The existing border was created to suit British politicians. A majority on both sides want to belong to the EU. No: At least 50% of Northern Irish people are against it, as well as many of those in the Republic. The quarrels between Catholics and Protestants would continue, and destabilise the whole of Ireland.  Or... Northern Ireland cannot make any progress while it is dominated by two parties associated with the violence and bigotry of the past. The only hope lies in the rise of moderate politicians.  KeywordsMichelle O’Neill - She comes from a family with strong IRA connections. One of her cousins was shot by the British army while attempting to kill a Protestant, and another was imprisoned for bombing a police station.

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