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What Northern Ireland is really voting for

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Unless the polls are badly wrong, Northern Ireland is about to take one step closer to breaking away from the United Kingdom and uniting with the Republic of Ireland.

When voters go to the polls this week to elect a new government, it will likely mark a watershed moment for the British region, with the nationalist Sinn Féin set to become the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

But don’t expect most voters to be talking about Irish unity.

Sinn Féin — once the political wing of the militant Provisional Irish Republican Army — has run a campaign focused on bread-and-butter issues like the rising cost of living and problems in the National

Health Service. The centrist Alliance party has done the same. “There are two main issues that are coming up again and again: cost of living and health care,” said Nuala McAllister, a candidate for the Alliance party.

Only the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which advocates for staying part of the United Kingdom, has made the issue of Northern Ireland’s political status an issue on the campaign trail, warning voters that casting a ballot for Sinn Féin will lead to casting another one in a referendum on Irish unity.

Whether voters acknowledge it or not, the DUP has a point. One hundred years after the Irish War of Independence ended with the partition of the island, Sinn Féin isn’t just in ascendency in Northern Ireland. The party has been gaining ground across the border in the Republic of Ireland as well, where politicians are starting to grapple with the possibility of absorbing the equivalent of more than a third of its population — many of whose primary loyalty is to the U.K.

Sitting in his campaign office in North Belfast featuring a poster of the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic — the document marking the birth of Ireland’s modern struggle for independence — Sinn Féin’s director of elections, John Finucane, is cautiously optimistic about the party’s prospects.

The party is aware that talk of uniting Ireland could scare off voters; a recent poll by the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool found that only 30 percent of citizens would vote for Irish unity “tomorrow.” But Finucane, who witnessed his father being shot to death in the family kitchen when he was just 9 years old, could not deny that the big question looming over Northern Irish politics is whether and when the region should join the Republic.

“I am a firm and unashamed believer that when you look at the evidence, partition has been bad for the island,” he said. “It’s only through unity that we will be able to truly unlock our potential.”

A referendum on Irish unity — known as a border poll — is inevitable, he added. “Even those who are the staunchest opponent of any constitutional change on this island, they all accept that there is a border poll coming and we need to be prepared for it. There is already a momentum … people are more open to having the conversation.”

Divided Ireland 

Business was brisk at the Shankill Historical Society shop and museum on a sunny weekday morning last week.

The shop sits on Shankill Road, a Protestant working-class area adorned with Unionist murals and iconography. Along with the neighboring Catholic-dominated Falls Road, the area was the focal point for much of the violence and bombings that erupted in 1969. Today, the two are still separated by euphemistically named “peace walls” — towering barriers that divide the two communities.

Jonathan, a young worker at the store, said that, like many businesses across Northern Ireland, trade was affected by the coronavirus lockdowns, though the store did a steady online business. The merchandise on offer includes souvenir mugs marking the Battle of the Somme, where thousands of Northern Irish troops fought and died, and wall signs honoring the Ulster Volunteer Force, the loyalist paramilitary group that waged a war with the Irish Republican Army for nearly 30 years.

With the election a few days away, he said that the main priority for politicians should be helping businesses get back on their feet. Jonathan — who was 8 when the Good Friday Agreement that ended the violence was signed in 1998 — says that cost of living issues are the primary concern of voters his age. Like many in the city, he is cynical about politicians: “They don’t really care,” he said. “They say one thing, do another.”

But even as bread-and-butter issues dominate the campaign in what was once the epicenter of the conflict, the dividing line in Northern Irish politics remains centered around the question of national identity. The two largest parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, are also the most hardline factions on either side of the Irish unity debate.

To the extent that a vote for Sinn Féin is an expression of a desire to join Ireland, the DUP is not wrong when it argues that a victory by the nationalist party could help pave the way for a referendum on Irish unity. The Good Friday Agreement states that a border poll should be called by the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”

The language was kept deliberately vague during the drafting of the Good Friday Agreement to ensure buy-in from all political traditions. In reality, any decision to hold a referendum would likely be taken by London in consultation with the government in Dublin — but a strong showing by Sinn Féin would add to the pressure to call a vote.

Sinn Féin election workers carry posters in Belfast | Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Northern Ireland’s demographic profile is changing, adding to the momentum. The last census a decade ago put the Protestant population at 48 percent, with Catholics at 45 percent (though coming from a Catholic or Protestant community background does not necessarily equate to support for remaining part of Britain or not).

The ultra-conservative stance of some DUP members on issues like marriage equality is also problematic for young voters, and tensions over Brexit are pulling support away from unionist parties and toward those favoring Irish unity.

In the last assembly election, in 2017, Sinn Féin won 27.9 percent of the vote and 27 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, compared with the DUP’s 28.1 percent and 28 seats. This year, it’s running candidates in 34 constituencies, and thanks in part to internal problems in the DUP, which is expected to lose seats, Sinn Féin is expected to emerge as the largest party.

POLITICO’s Poll of Polls has Sinn Féin with 26 percent of the vote, well ahead of the DUP, which is on track to get 20 percent. (Northern Ireland’s proportional representation election system means that popular support does not necessarily translate directly into seats).

South of the border 

The rising momentum has not gone unnoticed across the border, where Sinn Féin has also been growing as a political force and cultivating young, articulate candidates like its leader, Mary Lou McDonald, as it tries to distance itself from its past terrorist links. Sinn Féin is now the most popular party in the Republic of Ireland according to polls. Having tapped into voters’ concerns about health and housing, it is eclipsing the main parties Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.  

Though Sinn Féin would most likely need coalition partners in order to form a government in the Republic — so far the main political parties have shied away from this — they are closer to power than ever before. A favorite talking point of the party’s representatives in the United States, where it has long had support from the Irish-American community, is that Ireland is poised to elect a Sinn Féin first minister in the North and taoiseach, or prime minister, in the South. 

Even if that never comes to pass, the conversation in the Republic is changing. Propelled in part by Sinn Féin’s meteoric rise, the other main political parties are beginning to formulate their own policy positions on a possible border poll. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney surprised many in 2017 when he said he hoped to see a united Ireland in his lifetime. Prime Minister Micháel Martin has proposed the idea of a citizens’ assembly to discuss the issue.  

The debate in the Republic matters because unification would need to be approved in a referendum in the south as well as the north. And it’s becoming increasingly evident that joining the two countries would be infinitely more complex than the stuff of Irish ballads sung in the bars of Boston. 

A recent Irish Times poll found a majority of voters in the south favor a united Ireland in the long term, but oppose some of the measures that could be necessary to facilitate it, such as a new national anthem or increased public sector spending. 

Brendan O’Leary, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of a forthcoming book on Irish unity, “Making Sense of a United Ireland,” predicts that the conditions will be in place in Northern Ireland for a border poll by 2030, noting that there will be a majority of non-Protestants in every electoral age cohort with the possible exception of the over 85s. 

But he points out that, rather than a simple yes or no question on unification, citizens North and South will more likely be asked to vote on a specific model of reunification. “More likely the Southern government, having prepared the public through assemblies, meetings of the parliament, detailed research would articulate a specific model of reunification before the first referendum which, would have to be in the North.” 

In other words, the possibility that Northern Ireland would slot into the Republic the way it currently sits as part of the United Kingdom would be unlikely. Instead, the concept of Irish nationhood would have to be reimagined — on both sides of the border, said O’Leary. “The question will be how and whether Southern institutions change. Many questions will have to be considered — from the Irish flag, to the role of the queen, to the issue of dual citizenship.” 

One of the main challenges for the Republic would be the economic consequences of absorbing Northern Ireland. The region is one of the most economically challenged parts of U.K., with an under-developed private sector, a quarter of young people unemployed, and a heavy dependence on an annual grant from London. 

Still, O’Leary thinks the idea of an insuperable economic obstacle is overplayed, pointing out that current calculations about how much the North costs Britain are based on flawed understandings of how expenditure and taxation are calculated. 

“The Republic of Ireland is richer per head today by some significant margin than west Germany was in 1989. Northern Ireland is richer today with or without support from the British economy than East Germany was in 1989. German unification has taken place — it’s not perfect but it certainly is not a disaster.” 

Enter the unionists 

Then there’s the issue of identity. Not only is Northern Ireland relatively large — it has a population of 1.9 million, compared with about 5 million in the Republic — it includes an estimated 800,000 people who have traditionally identified as unionists, many of whom want Northern Ireland to remain as “British as Finchley,” as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once put it. 

Alex Kane, a former Ulster Unionist party head of communications, said that, since the creation of Northern Ireland a century ago, unionists have been unwilling to even discuss the possibility, however distant, of reunification. “Sinn Féin and figures like John Hume of the [nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party] were always on message, always looking ahead,” he said. “The trouble for unionists is that there are so many strands to unionism, and they spend more time attacking each other.” 

Neale Richmond, a Fine Gael member of the Irish parliament, believes that Brexit has brought the prospect of a unified Ireland closer, but says the rights of those who identify as British must be respected. “The challenge for those who believe in unity is to reach out to the unionists and other communities to convince and reassure. We need a new Ireland that is genuinely inclusive of a minority British population, one whose identity will be respected and who will see no diminution of their rights.”

Privately, officials in Dublin say the Irish government will not push for a vote if there are any signs of a resurgent loyalist paramilitarism in the North or South. 

It’s unclear too how much the broader Irish public is ready to accommodate the unionist perspective. When the Irish minister of justice proposed earlier this year to hold a commemoration service for former members of the Royal Irish Constabulary — the British police force in Ireland before independence that also counted many ordinary Irish Catholics among its members — the resulting public backlash forced him to quickly back down. 

Ironically, many analysts believe that Sinn Féin is one of the biggest obstacles to Irish unity. Most northern Unionists would balk at the prospect of a referendum pushed by a party still associated with figures like Gerry Adams, the former Sinn Féin president who served time in prison and was banned from visiting the United States for years. The party is also viewed with similar suspicion by many in the South, especially given that some of its politicians and advisers are former prisoners released as part of the Good Friday Agreement (though the popularity of the party among younger voters shows that this is not a concern for those who did not live through the Troubles).

Privately, some at the highest levels of leadership in Sinn Féin worry that if they were to get into government in the South at the next election, they would come under enormous pressure from their own base to push for an Irish unity referendum. The risk is that a vote could be held before popular support has time to build — with the failed 2014 Scottish independence referendum offering a cautionary tale. 

This week’s assembly election won’t settle any of the big constitutional issues that have loomed over the region since the creation of Northern Ireland 100 years ago. Indeed, there’s the chance it could aggravate them. But some are hoping it will one day be seen as a turning point.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, center, with fellow election candidates | Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Along with the talk of unification, there are signs that the region’s deep sectarian divisions are starting to heal. Alliance, the party that describes itself as neither nationalist nor unionist, is expected to poll well in the election. Similarly, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a moderate nationalist party founded by the icon of the Irish peace process, John Hume, is hoping to break new ground.

Conor Houston, a first-time SDLP candidate, hopes to become the first nationalist ever elected in the unionist-dominated Strangford constituency just south of Belfast. The 38-year-old lawyer and businessman, who spent part of his youth living in England, is exactly the kind of candidate that the SDLP believe can bridge the region’s bitter divides.

Despite the fact that some of his posters have been defaced, he is getting a positive reception on the doorsteps, and he hopes to make history this week.

“People are ready to look beyond the old divisions and elect someone who can work for them and deliver,” he said. “It’s time to leave the divisions of the past behind.”

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