Sinn Fein wins victory in Northern Ireland Assembly election
The party won the most seats for the first time ever last week. However, “despite its popularity”, it is far from guaranteeing “a positive vision of the future”, Richard Bourk, Professor of the History of Political Thought and Fellow of King’s College at the University of Cambridge said.
The professor, who recently co-edited The Political Thought of the Irish Revolution, wrote: “With a Sinn Féin victory anticipated, the distant prospect of a united Ireland was expected to move closer.
“But as the dust settles, there has been little discussion of what shape a united Ireland might take.”
During the election campaign, the party’s deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said people were not “waking up thinking about Irish unity” and described matters such as the cost-of-living crisis as bigger priorities.
Still, Sinn Féin remains committed to holding a referendum on Irish unification, and its manifesto called on the British and Irish governments to set a date for a border poll.
On May 6, party leader Mary Lou McDonald said planning for a unity referendum would come within a “five-year framework”.
But before the possibility of a united Ireland even comes into play, more pressing problems need addressing.
Sinn Féin’s relationship with the DUP, which is now the second-largest party, is one of them.
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Michelle O’Neill, as the party’s vice-president, is entitled to claim the post of First Minister.
For her to form a new government, the DUP must agree to take up the deputy first minister’s position, as laid out in the Good Friday Agreement.
But DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said he will not lead his party back into power-sharing until concerns with the post-Brexit trading arrangements contained in the Northern Ireland Protocol are resolved.
He claimed: “We want to see this place up and running as soon as possible.
“We want stable devolved government. We are committed to our participation in those institutions.”
Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, met with the main parties in Belfast on May 9 and called for its leaders to “come together to agree on a way forward to deliver a stable and accountable devolved government”.
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When coming together, the Northern Ireland Protocol is expected to take centre stage in the conversation.
Speaking at a press conference with his new MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) team at Stormont, Sir Jeffrey said: “The protocol needs to be dealt with.”
With that, Ms O’Neill agrees.
Speaking to the media on May 9, she urged the UK Government to sort out the remaining Brexit issues with the European Union so as not to make Northern Ireland “collateral damage”.
She said: “Brinkmanship will not be tolerated when Northern Ireland becomes collateral damage in a game of chicken with the European Commission.
“Responsibilities for finding solutions to the Protocol lie with Boris Johnson and the EU.
“But make no mistake, we and our businessmen here will not be held for ransom.”
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Stormont needs to be ‘inclusive of its opponents as well as supporters’, Prof Bourk argues
The Protocol is designed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
It created the Irish Sea border and means Northern Ireland continues to follow some EU rules.
Unionists opposed it because they believe it is driving a wedge between them and the rest of the UK.
Sir Jeffrey said: “We need decisive action by the government to address the difficulties created by the protocol.
“Whether that is driving up the cost of living, whether that is the harm that it is doing to businesses and our economy, or indeed in undermining political stability in Northern Ireland.
He added: “We sought a mandate from people to adopt the stance that we have taken and we will continue, as we recognise others also have a democratic mandate [and] we want to work with them to deliver stable government for Northern Ireland.
“But the long shadow of the protocol is casting its mark over this place.”
In terms of unity being part of discussions, Prof Bourk suggested otherwise, as he stressed Sinn Féin’s key focus is on “defeating its historic adversaries, which it has pursued with due application and ruthlessness”.
Writing in UnHerd, he said: “As a party of government it needs to develop a wider perspective, inclusive of its opponents as well as supporters.
“So far, it has offered nothing to the unionist population, still more or less half the inhabitants of the region.
“This is exactly what nationalists complained about when unionists ran the old Stormont regime.”