Sinn Fein’s Breakthrough Brings a United Ireland Closer Than Ever Before*
By John Wight
It would be fair to say that Sinn Fein’s historic electoral breakthrough in the recent elections to Northern Ireland’s devolved Assembly legislature has taken almost everyone by surprise, including them.
With this breakthrough Sinn Fein (in English “we ourselves”) has just shattered the veto of the ruling Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for the first time since the Northern Ireland Assembly was established in 1998, along with the province’s power-sharing government, as part of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to three decades of conflict known as the Troubles.
The new Assembly elections were held after Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness resigned from his post as deputy first minister in protest at the refusal of the Assembly’s first minister, the DUP’s Arlene Foster, to step down over a financial scandal surrounding a botched renewable energy scheme that she helped to set up and which is set to cost taxpayers in Northern Ireland up to £480 million (US$586m).
Yet though this particular scandal and Arlene Foster’s intransigence may be the proximate cause of the bad feeling between Sinn Fein and the DUP, various unresolved political and sectarian issues emanating from the Troubles also lie at its heart.
For many unionists both inside and outwith the DUP, political parity with Sinn Fein and the Irish republican and the Catholic communities they represent has always been anathema. It has been this way ever since the partitioned British statelet of Northern Ireland was established in 1921, out of the negotiations that ended the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-21. Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority, cut off from the Catholic majority Irish Republic south of the border, were over succeeding generations denied the same civil rights as the Protestant majority in the province.
The modern conflict, the Troubles, erupted in the late 1960s when a mass civil rights movement — non-violent, non-sectarian and peaceful — emerged in Northern Ireland to demand those civil rights for Catholic still denied justice and equality when it came to housing, employment, and political representation. When the movement began to win concessions from the British government the Protestant majority began to feel their dominant position and status under threat, resulting in a wave of sectarian-inspired attacks on Catholic communities in Belfast. It was the need to defend Catholics from this campaign of terror that saw the birth of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), colloquially known as the Provos, in 1969.
Attacks on the civil rights movement continued into the 1970s, culminating in Bloody Sunday in January 1972, when soldiers belonging to the elite British Parachute Regiment shot and killed 17 unarmed protesters in Derry during a mass march for civil rights. This event effectively destroyed the province’s non-violent movement for civil rights, while at the same time increasing support and recruitment to the PIRA.
Roughly 3,600 people were killed during the Troubles, with thousands more maimed and injured. It was a conflict in which atrocities were committed by all sides. It’s high point, its apogee, was the 1981 Hunger Strikes, in which ten republican prisoners at the specially built prison facility just outside Belfast, the H-Blocks, starved themselves to death in protest at the British government’s removal of their status as political prisoners.
The man who led the Hunger Strike and was first to die, Bobby Sands, achieved international fame and recognition. He was lauded around the world by the likes of Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela for his courage and stance in the cause of national liberation. His detractors dismissed and continue to dismiss Bobby Sands as a terrorist, however, along with his comrades. It is a polarization that is still entrenched in Northern Irish politics up to the present day, one that is evident in the current spat between Sinn Fein and the DUP over the position of Arlene Foster.
Another important factor in Sinn Fein’s remarkable electoral breakthrough is the party’s opposition to Brexit. A majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the E.U. during the U.K.wide referendum on the issue, held in June 2016. This was no surprise considering that the province has benefited significantly from the U.K.’s membership of the E.U. in the form of agricultural and various other subsidies.
Brexit throws up the issue of the border between British controlled Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which remains part of the E.U. The prospect of what is currently an open border being changed to a hard border as a result of Brexit, has given rise to serious concerns north and south of the border over a peace process that is far from impervious to such significant political and social shocks.
Ultimately, Sinn Fein’s growing political success and influence in Northern Ireland is testament to the party’s strong opposition to Brexit and a political vision that is far more progressive and compelling than any offered by their unionist opponents and counterparts.
It also places the question of a united Ireland firmly back on the table.