Sinn Fein, doing fine

SINCE the partition of Ireland in 1921, parties supporting the union with Britain have been comfortably in control of the island’s north. On March 2nd that changed. In a surprise election result the two main unionist parties, the Democratic Unionists (DUP) and Ulster Unionists, won only 38 seats in the 90-member Assembly. Sinn Fein, the main republican party, came within fewer than 1,200 votes of overtaking the DUP to become the Assembly’s biggest force (see chart). “The notion of a permanent or perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” said Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein’s president.

The historic tilt in the sectarian balance of power followed a disastrous campaign by the DUP and its leader, Arlene Foster, who has been Northern Ireland’s first minister since January last year. The election, which came only ten months after the previous contest, was triggered when Sinn Fein’s leader and deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned in protest at Mrs Foster’s “arrogance” and supposed refusal to work with republicans in the power-sharing administration. Sinn Fein further accuses Mrs Foster of wasting hundreds of millions of pounds in her handling of a green-energy initiative known as the “cash for ash” affair.

Her response was to run a hardline campaign, curtly rejecting any suggestion of concessions to Sinn Fein. “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more,” she declared. Sinn Fein made hay with this, a dozen of its members wearing crocodile costumes cavorting on stage to Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock”. Anxiety about Brexit, which the DUP supported but 56% of Northern Irish voters opposed, may have contributed to high turnout. But the main factors were local, Mrs Foster’s language energising Sinn Fein supporters and boosting the party’s previously faltering vote. Edwin Poots, a DUP Assemblyman, admitted to the Ulster Star: “Unfortunately nationalists and republicans turned out in a way they haven’t done for a long time...We have managed to get [them] angry and that has led to them winning more seats.”

Republican jubilation, and a sharp increase of unionist anxiety, will do little to increase the prospects for success in the negotiations which the British government launched this week with the aim of getting the Assembly back in operation again. Sinn Fein has a new leader in the north in the form of Michelle O’Neill. (Mr McGuinness is said to be gravely ill in hospital.) Sinn Fein insists it will accept Mrs Foster as first minister only if she is cleared by a public inquiry into the green-energy debacle, due to start soon. The party has further made it plain that it will not accept her unless she softens her attitude.

The law says that a fresh election must be called if an agreement is not reached within three weeks. Few believe that a breakthrough can be made within that timescale. But nor do many want a re-run of the poll, and so the likelihood is that an extension will be arranged so that the parties can be kept at the negotiating table, probably for months.

All of Northern Ireland’s parties, as well as the governments in London and Dublin, want devolution to continue, rather than return to direct rule from Westminster. But the negotiations will be a long, hard slog. And it will be some time before all sides come to terms with this sudden and dramatic change in the political landscape and the balance of power.