Thursday’s elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly resulted in what has been universally acknowledged as a historic win for Sinn Féin – the Irish Republicans who want to see a united Ireland. When, in 1921, following the Irish War of Independence, the Republic of Ireland achieved its freedom from the United Kingdom, the northern counties remained part of the UK. Unlike the south, Northern Ireland was predominantly Unionist and Protestant, and Nationalists and Catholics here were treated as second class citizens. Protests against this mistreatment, and against the British rule that made it possible, turned violent as the UK government responded with crackdowns. Many republicans felt that a political route out of their oppression would always be blocked, and they fought for their rights as the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
However, in 1998, a peace agreement was signed – involving most northern Irish political parties as well as the Irish and UK governments – and was subsequently approved by referendums. This agreement recognises Northern Ireland as part of the UK unless and until there are majority votes for a united Ireland both north and south of the border. The agreement also established the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly.
Northern Irish politics is still largely split along unionist (i.e. pro-UK) and nationalist lines. Sinn Féin is the main nationalist party, and their name means ‘we ourselves’. Their politics are republican and democratic-socialist and they are active in both parts of Ireland. Famously, Sinn Féin MPs refuse to take their seats in the UK government at Westminster, in protest against its authority, but Thursday’s elections were for the devolved Assembly in Belfast, to which they are fully committed.
The Assembly has a power sharing agreement whereby the leaders of the two largest parties become First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Although these are meant to be equal roles, the order is symbolically significant. Up to now, Sinn Féin has only held the Deputy First Ministership alongside a Unionist First Minister.
The Assembly has gone through rocky periods, and Britain’s exit from the EU added another crisis. In order not to harden the border with the Republic of Ireland, new border controls were introduced between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – and the largest Unionist Party, the DUP, forced the Assembly to be dissolved in protest.
So, what does last week’s historic win signify? I put some questions to Paul Gavan, who is a Sinn Féin senator in the Republic of Ireland.
We read everywhere that this is a historic victory. Can you explain to people not familiar with Irish politics why it so significant?
Good evening from Limerick in the Republic of Ireland. Today, Sinn Féin is celebrating a significant victory in the Northern Assembly Elections. For the first time, Sinn Féin have become the largest political party in the North of Ireland. The reason that’s so significant is because the northern state that was carved out of our country by Britain was designed to have a permanent Unionist majority, and yet, today, after these elections, Sinn Féin are the largest party, and that means Sinn Féin gets nominated to the position of First Minister in the new assembly.
Sinn Féin are the biggest party, but don’t have a majority, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is the second biggest, is not only opposed to what you stand for, but has also been preventing the Northern Ireland Assembly from functioning at all in protest at Brexit arrangements. So, what happens now?
In terms of what happens next, it’s unclear. The DUP – the Democratic Unionist Party – are saying at this point in time that they won’t go back into government unless something is done about the protocol in relation to the EU and Britain and Brexit. However, Sinn Féin’s position is very clear, The North of Ireland needs a new Assembly government. We have a cost-of-living crisis. We have a health crisis. We have money that we can spend. We are proposing a 1 billion [pound] investment into our health services. And I don’t believe the people of Northern Ireland will tolerate a constant refusal by the Democratic Unionist Party to go back into government. So, it’s not clear what is going to happen next, but what is clear is this: our Sinn Féin elected representatives are ready and willing to get back to work and form that government, and work for all of the people of Northern Ireland.
How much closer has this brought you to achieving a united Ireland?
In terms of what this result means for our overall key project goal of a united Ireland, its significance – it’s significant because it shows that this ongoing change means that we have to plan for the future. What Sinn Féin is calling for is a citizens’ assembly across the country so that we can have dialogue, discussion, about what a future united Ireland would look like; about when a border poll should take place. So, this is a significant staging post. But, in the meantime, we want to get on with good government for our people in the north of Ireland, and, of course, when we get the opportunity, hopefully in the Republic [of Ireland] as well.
What message does this election victory have for other people and parties campaigning against colonial relationships?
Sinn Féin very much hope that the progress we are making towards our goal of a united independent socialist republic will give encouragement to peoples across the world in their own struggles for freedom – for independence from colonial rule. Our goal isn’t yet achieved, but, clearly, we are making progress; and I think it’s, hopefully, a signal to progressive forces across Europe, and indeed across the world.