Northern Ireland was created as a political entity in 1921, a compromise between London and Dublin that led to civil war, so that Protestants would get their corner of the island, their religion would become dominant and they could continue to pay allegiance to the British crown. And for decades they have treated the area like their farmhouse, doing and destroying as they please, leaving behind the best jobs and treating Catholics like second-class citizens.
But if former British Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson had said that in politics a week is an eternity, let alone a hundred and one years. That’s how long it took for Republican Sinn Féin, a former political arm of the IRA, to win a majority of the popular vote, as well as a majority of 27 seats in the Stormont Assembly, with the right to appoint a leader. In her case, Michelle O’Neill as prime minister.
Behind was an age of turbulent history, oppression, discrimination, hatred, resentment, violence divided between two sides (as well as more than 3,600 deaths), on the one hand, IRA terrorists and related organizations, on the other, loyalist paramilitaries in collusion with the forces state security (British intelligence agencies, the army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the old provincial police, consisting of all Protestants). It is impossible to erase the legacy preserved in the collective memory.
A significant increase in support for the Alliance party, the only one that is alien to sectarianism and religious division.
Sinn Féin’s emergence as a major political force has been from the signing of the Good Friday Accords in 1998 and its renunciation of violence, followed six years later by the seizure and destruction of its arsenals. Its leaders (then former Gerry Adams and the late Martin McGuinness) already had a plan when they traded guns for a ballot box: to seize power from both across the border in Ireland.
“This is a historic day, the beginning of a new era. We are going to rule the whole world and my message to the Unionists is that you don’t have to be afraid,” said Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s vice president and next prime minister, if the DUP (the most voted Protestant party) is allows. Because one of the features of Ulster politics is that the coalition is mandatory, and its autonomous institutions work only if two communities are represented in them.
This is the culmination of a process that began in the 1990s when the IRA decided to move from guns to ballot boxes.
Thus, now all attention is turned to the DUPD, whose leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who was to become Deputy Prime Minister in the new government, repeated in disgust that he would not accept this position until the Brexit trade agreements were changed, invisible the border to the Irish Sea disappears and British goods entering Ulster are no longer subject to customs, hygiene checks, dues and tariffs (Brussels’ condition for the province to be on the single market). Boris Johnson has decided to give the EU a “last chance” to renegotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol in a way that satisfies London and union members, and if not, he threatens to unilaterally annul those aspects of the pact he desires, for which he has already drafted legislation ready for submissions to parliament.
Although the political and demographic winds have been blowing the other way for some time (Catholics have more children and will soon be in the majority), Protestants in Northern Ireland are not used to losing, and yesterday’s result came as a shock. There were three key factors: moderate support for the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) of Sinn Féin, increased support for the Alliance Party (non-denominational and unaffiliated with either of the two communities, as a result of fed-up sectarian divisions), and the fragmentation of Unionism.
Winners bid for reunification referendum within five years
While the Protestant bloc has focused its campaign on abandoning Brexit trade deals, Sinn Féin Republicans with a left-wing economic agenda have focused on building housing and improving healthcare and education. And he didn’t talk about island reunification at all, a taboo subject. He didn’t do that until yesterday, when he was close to winning, and O’Neill said he hoped for a referendum within five years at the most. An idea that not only fails to reassure them, but makes Protestants stand on end.
Reunification will not be easy on such a short notice because the Good Friday Accords state that consultations should take place when “it is clear that this is what the majority desires”. And besides, the republic would have to give the go-ahead (after all, it would have to pay the bills, as West Germany did after the fall of the wall). Now, according to polls, only a third of voters on the island as a whole are clear that they want this.
The political revolution in Ulster is connected not only with the first ever victory of Sinn Féin. Also because people are less and less willing to accept political and religious restrictions. Not all Protestants are Brexit supporters, and many see the benefits of dual access to the EU and UK markets. Not all Catholics want reunification, and many see it as a blessing to be halfway between London and Dublin. And the common denominator is concern for everyday problems, inflation, energy prices, queues in hospitals…
Perhaps the victory of Sinn Féin is more symbolic than anything else. But in Ulster, symbols are everything.
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