News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - UK / Ireland - Europe2024 On the Road to Reunification?

With Michelle O’Neill as First Minister of Northern Ireland, a United Ireland could finally be within reach

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Tommy Greene,

First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald speak at a Foreign Press Association briefing in London, 8 February 2024. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

History was made earlier this month when Northern Ireland’s first-ever First Minister from a Nationalist background, broadly defined as those parties in Ireland aspiring to reunite the north with the rest of the country, was sworn in.

Tommy Greene is a Belfast-based freelance journalist. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Open Democracy, Tribune, and The Irish Times. You can also find him on Twitter.

Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s vice-president, comes from a family deeply embedded in the Republican struggle to which her party lends institutional representation. Her father was imprisoned as a member of the Provisional IRA while her uncle raised funds for the paramilitary group, and two of her cousins were shot by British security forces while serving as members of the organization. One of the two died from his wounds.

Yet, the 47-year-old has come to define a generation of Sinn Féin politicians who find themselves increasingly less weighed down by the baggage of the three-decade conflict known as “the Troubles” — something that was an important factor in the party’s ability to win over new voters, including younger cohorts, in the May 2022 elections for Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly.

O’Neill’s broad appeal helped her lead the party towards its historic feat of becoming the first Nationalist or Republican party to top the poll in Northern Ireland, benefitting from a post-Brexit fragmentation of the electorate among unionists, broadly defined as those who aspire to remain part of the region’s political union with Great Britain.

A Decade of Opportunity

Part of the reason O’Neill’s rise carries such symbolic weight is that Northern Ireland’s political architecture was drawn up in such a way as to ensure a permanent unionist majority, administered via the “Protestant parliament and … Protestant state”. As then-BBC reporter Lewis Goodall explained in a revealing video clip that quickly went viral: “Northern Ireland was literally designed, its borders were designed, so that wouldn’t happen.”

Following years of upheaval and an armed Republican independence campaign, the Government of Ireland Act passed in May 1921 partitioned Ireland into two self-governing polities. Allowing for the establishment of the Irish “Free State” that incorporated 26 of the island’s 32 counties, it also created a northern state in which British and Protestant rule would be safeguarded permanently in a model that was later emulated for both Palestine and India.

The inequality that was built into Northern Ireland from its inception was enforced through decades of sectarian discrimination against Catholics across almost all areas of the society — housing, employment, the justice system — and brutal state violence. Responding to demands and popular pressure from the North’s civil rights movement, universal adult suffrage was only introduced by the Unionist governing administration in 1969.

By that point, however, the “spark” created by this and other popular challenges to Official Unionist rule had already “led to conflagration”, and escalating violence across the region could no longer be contained. The arrival of British troops that same year, a desperate effort to manage the conflict, only made matters worse, and following a series of army massacres in the early 1970s, a province-wide guerrilla war was underway.

Sinn Féin has become the biggest party at local government level in Northern Ireland and is poised to win the biggest seat share in the Republic of Ireland’s upcoming general election. This raises the prospect of it leading the governments at both Dublin and Belfast within the next year.

Sinn Féin’s rise in the North marked a key turning point in The Troubles, providing a vehicle for Irish Republicanism’s aspirations within the northern state’s reformed political institutions and a way out of what had become an intractable, increasingly squalid sectarian conflict.

For years after its first electoral breakthrough during the 1981 IRA Hunger Strike, the party polled far below the moderate Nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP). Its leaders were taking tentative early steps in what became a long journey away from armed struggle, culminating in the 1994 IRA ceasefire and the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.

The SLDP and Ulster Unionist Party’s respective positions as moderate hegemonic forces within green and orange camps slipped away under this new post-1998 dispensation they helped broker, as Sinn Féin and the ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) soon eclipsed their rivals. Under Northern Ireland’s new power-sharing arrangements, Sinn Féin began an uneasy period of devolved government in 2007 that was marked by repeated standoffs and institutional paralysis.

While this period led to a degree of disillusionment among certain elements of its Republican base, Sinn Féin incurred relatively minor political costs. An apparent electoral ceiling was also lifted in the years that followed, as the party enacted a shrewd leadership transition amid a Brexit process that returned the national question to the centre of UK politics.

“Like the Scottish National Party, Sinn Féin has the rare privilege of being able to present itself simultaneously as a party of government with a short-term policy agenda and a party of protest with a transcendent long-term objective”, explained journalist and author Dan Finn, following the party’s historic election result in May 2022.

Sinn Féin has since gone on to become the biggest party at local government level in Northern Ireland and, after having topped the poll in 2020, is poised to win the biggest seat share in the Republic of Ireland’s upcoming general election. This raises the prospect of it leading the governments at both Dublin and Belfast within the next year.

Mary Lou McDonald, who took over as president of Sinn Féin from Gerry Adams in 2018, told Sky News earlier this month that she “envisage[s] us having the referendums in this decade”, suggesting a border poll on Irish reunification may be held before 2030. O’Neill has also described this new political chapter as a “decade of opportunity”.

Making “New Ireland” a Reality

Nevertheless, the party has its work cut out if it is to secure the plebiscite and outcome it desires. It will require nothing short of an accelerated constitutive process, driven by degrees of social democratic reform not seen anywhere else in Europe for decades.

Addressing Ireland’s acute housing crisis and creating a universal public healthcare system in one of the world’s most important corporate tax havens are among the many steps needed to convince voters that a United Ireland offer is sufficiently attractive, amid the prospect of a stabilization period for the UK under a Keir Starmer-led Labour Party.

Sinn Féin has deftly played its political hand in the last decade — both from opposition in the southern Irish state and during prolonged paralysis of devolved government in Northern Ireland owing to Brexit fallout and standoffs with the DUP. Whether it can sustain such levels of popular support, however, while managing two states with notably limited administrative capacities, is another question.

So far, Sinn Féin has not buckled under the weight of these apparent contradictions.

The current government in Dublin pledged up to 1 billion euro for various infrastructure and job creation initiatives in the north by 2030. Now that the party controls key economy and finance ministry portfolios in Belfast, a Sinn Féin-led government south of the border could help coordinate significant all-island spending to help advance its goals over the coming years.

In the immediate term, however, it is grappling with fiscal pressures from Westminster, resisting calls for water charges and other painful revenue-raising measures, while demanding a more generous funding settlement for the UK’s most deprived region across a number of indicators.

It has also been pointed out that the party is riding two different horses during this intense electoral cycle, having positioned itself as an insurgent left-populist force south of the Irish border and a more conservative outfit willing to accept the limitations of power-sharing government in the north. The discrepancies between the positions it takes in the two jurisdictions, from housing to environmental policy, is notable — while the party rails against vulture funds in Dublin, for instance, it invites and welcomes Foreign Direct Investment in Belfast.

So far, Sinn Féin has not buckled under the weight of these apparent contradictions. If anything, its recent polling slump in the southern Irish state has seen a leakage towards independent right-wing populist candidates.

It is once again playing a pivotal role in shaping the island’s constitutional future. The task ahead of it is enormous and its fortunes could, to an extent, be out of its hands. But, if it can take the steps it has promised to deliver concrete gains and protections for the social majority across the island, the “New Ireland” it promises may become a much more convincing reality.