Sinn Féin’s victory does not bring a united Ireland any closer

Three seismic events have occurred at once in Northern Ireland. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s centenary, an Irish nationalist party came first in an election – and not just any nationalist party, but Sinn Fein, the longstanding political wing of the Irish Republican Army. Second, the Alliance Party, which is challenging the traditional Protestant-Catholic division that has characterized Northern Ireland since its inception, achieved its best-ever result and has now established itself as a true third force in Northern Ireland politics. And third, the major political row that has dominated Northern Ireland politics since Brexit – over the so-called protocol to introduce new border controls – has been tested with the public, and while those who oppose it have hardened in their opposition a majority voted for parties that’s fine with that.

So the truth of Thursday’s election is certainly that reunification of the island of Ireland is now more likely and that Northern Ireland will finally be able to end divisions over Brexit and move on. Right? Not correct.

The reality is that Northern Ireland is as stuck as ever, a Gordian knot without an Alexander to slash it. In fact, there can be no Alexander in Northern Ireland – and that’s the point. The knotting of Northern Ireland is intended. Being stuck is the only way the place works.

Two inescapable truths continue to rule Northern Ireland. First, while Sinn Féin came out ahead of all other parties in Thursday’s election, a sizeable majority of voters still support remaining part of the UK rather than joining the Republic of Ireland. The second is that existing Northern Ireland is a strange, unfair and largely dysfunctional place that only works when it works both its nationalist and unionist communities agree with the system that governs it. While more people are now voting for the Third Way Alliance Party, which argues that other bread-and-butter issues matter more than unionism or nationalism, the political and constitutional reality of Northern Ireland remains unchanged for now.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, power must be shared between the two largest denominations elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, which so far has been made up of blocs identifying as unionist and nationalist. Until those who describe themselves as “different” – like the Alliance Party – end up in the top two, it doesn’t matter whether a nationalist or a union party comes first or second because they have to share power with the other.

This reality most directly affects the future of the Northern Ireland protocol, which the UK and European Union agreed to in 2019 as part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit divorce deal. Under the terms of this agreement, a trade and customs frontier was established between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain (ie inside same country) to avoid one being imposed between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (i.e. between two different states sharing the same island). Since then, trade union parties in Northern Ireland have fiercely opposed this protocol, arguing that it is unfair because it gives priority to the wishes of one community in Northern Ireland (nationalists) over the other (unionists). Two things happened in Thursday’s election, each pulling in opposite directions. First, parties supporting the protocol won more votes than parties opposed to it. But secondly, among the union parties opposed, it was the hardest party, increasing its share of the vote at the expense of the others.

And so we’re back to where we’ve always been when it comes to Northern Ireland, everything has been turned upside down in theory but nothing changes in practice. Once again we have fallen down the rabbit hole of the Northern Ireland border issue into a world of the absurd. “Would you please tell me which way to go from here?” asks Alice from the Cheshire Cat Alice in Wonderland. “That depends a lot on where you want to go,” replies the cat. The same applies to Northern Ireland.

One side, led by the EU, sees the protocol as an almost sacred document that must be upheld to keep peace in Northern Ireland. Without them, this page argues, goods controls between the UK and the Republic of Ireland would have to take place at the land border, fueling Irish nationalist anger and thereby undermining support for the political settlement established by the Goods Friday agreement. However, the protocol was never fully implemented as it would cause such disruption that it would fuel further unionist resentment and thus undermine support for the political solution created by the Good Friday Agreement.

In essence, then, the protocol is upheld by one side as an agreement necessary to keep the peace, but which has never been fully implemented because it would undermine the peace. (The truth is that neither the UK nor the EU have ever fully implemented the protocol: the UK government has unilaterally extended “grace periods” for companies to avoid disruption, while the EU has agreed not to implement parts of the protocol that restricting the flow of medical supplies from the UK to Northern Ireland). This is a look-the-other-way solution, with everyone acknowledging that the agreement cannot be enforced or abolished.

However, the fear is that the situation cannot last much longer. From today, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, the most successful union bloc in Thursday’s election, have six months to form a new power-sharing executive (essentially a Northern Ireland government) before the British government assumes direct rule from London prevails and sets a date for another round of elections to break the impasse. Again, the UK government would call elections to break a deadlock that is essential to security but cannot be implemented because it would undermine security.

To find a way through the crisis, Johnson is flirting with the idea of ​​passing legislation giving the UK government the power to bypass parts of the protocol it finds intolerable. Such a move, critics argue, would violate international law. Proponents counter that the UK government has obligations to two international agreements that are now in conflict: the Good Friday Agreement and the Protocol. To get the former, the latter must change. To offset such a move, some experts believe the UK government will make concessions to Irish nationalists that have so far been blocked by trade unionists. By granting concessions to both sides, officials hope to find a way through the crisis. If you’re confused, it’s because the whole problem is so fiendishly complicated that in the six years since Britain voted to leave the EU, no one has managed to solve it.

The truth is, as has always been the case in Northern Ireland, the choice is between compromise and chaos. “The simple reality is, if you want Northern Ireland to work, we need a new offer on protocol and a new historic compromise,” says Paul Bew, professor of Irish politics at Queen’s University in Belfast, who was closely involved in the negotiations led to the Good Friday Agreement. The final compromise itself matters less than the fact that everyone – the EU, Britain, the Republic of Ireland and the two (or three) sides in Northern Ireland – must be equally unhappy with it. Only when everyone is a little offended will the solution be reasonably tenable.

Northern Ireland can feel like a country where brute force and violence still play a role in ways that shouldn’t be the case in a modern state. But in many ways it is also a deeply unreal place where the politics of make-believe is all that works: where democracy is real but not real; where peace settlements prevail but regulate nothing; and where the sectarian division bemoaned but anchored by the system praised by all. It is a place where Irish nationalists are winning but are no closer to Irish unity; where unionists are losing but no less powerful; and where clean, rational solutions that look good on paper have to turn into dirty, irrational compromises that look terrible at first glance if they are to work. Sinn Féin’s victory does not bring a united Ireland any closer

Jessica MacLeish

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