LONDON — Six years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, no part of the United Kingdom has felt the sting in the tail more than Northern Ireland, where Brexit laid the groundwork for Sinn Fein’s remarkable rise in the parliamentary elections this week.
With more than half the votes counted on Saturday, Sinn Fein, the main Irish nationalist party, came close to winning 21 seats, the most of any party in the area. The Democratic Unionist Party, which represents those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, fell to second place with 19 seats.
While Brexit was not on the ballot, it cast a long shadow over the campaign, particularly for the DUP, the flagship unionist party that has been at the helm of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government since it was established by the Good Friday peace accord nearly a quarter of a century ago.
The legacy of Brexit rippled through local elections across the British Isles: in London, where anti-Brexit voters gave the Conservative Party bastions to the Labor Party, and in the ‘red wall’, the pro-Brexit rust belt regions of England, where the Conservatives held off Work. But in Northern Ireland, the effect of Brexit was decisive.
For all the history of Sinn Fein’s victory – the first for a party calling for a united Ireland and with rudimentary ties to the Irish Republican army – the election results are not so much a breakthrough for Irish nationalism as a sign of demoralization of the unionist electorate, the disorder of their leaders and an electorate that prioritized economic issues over sectarian strife.
Much of this can be traced back to Brexit.
“Dealing with the loss of supremacy is a lot for unions to process,” said Diarmaid Ferriter, a professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. “But the union workers really shot themselves in the foot.”
The DUP has struggled to hold together voters who are divided and angry at the north’s changed status – it is the only member of the United Kingdom to share a border with the Republic of Ireland, a member of the European Union.
That hybrid status has complicated life in many ways, most notably due to the need for a complex trade agreement, the Northern Ireland Protocol, which imposes border controls on goods flowing into Northern Ireland from mainland Britain. Many union members complain that it has driven a wedge between them and the rest of the UK by effectively creating a border in the Irish Sea.
The DUP approved the protocol but later turned against it and withdrew from Northern Ireland’s last government in protest. Unionist voters punished it for that U-turn, with some voting for a more hard-core union party and others turning to a non-sectarian centrist party, the Alliance, which also made big gains.
The Alliance’s success, political analysts say, suggests Northern Ireland may transcend the sectarian fury of the past and a binary division between unionists and nationalists.
Even Sinn Fein, who for decades has been associated with the bloody struggle for Irish unity, said little on the subject during the campaign, focusing on issues such as jobs, the cost of living and the overburdened health care system.
As the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaches, some analysts said it was time to rethink the political fabric of the north.
The accord ended decades of sectarian strife by, among other things, creating an open border on the island. But it also balanced political power between the nationalists and trade unionists at a time when the predominantly Protestant trade unionists formed the majority and the predominantly Catholic nationalists a troubled minority.
Demographic trends have changed that: The faster-growing Catholic population is about to catch up with Protestants. While the link between religion and political identification is not automatic – there are some Catholics who prefer to stay in the UK – the trends favored the nationalists even before Brexit.
As the largest party, Sinn Fein will be given the right to appoint a prime minister, the symbolic top official in the government. But the final number of seats between nationalists and unionists is likely to be close, as the other two unionist parties won a handful of seats, and the one other party that labeled itself a nationalist, the Social Democratic and Workers’ Party, underperformed.
As the runner-up, the DUP may appoint a Deputy Prime Minister, who acts as an effective equal. Yet it has not committed itself to a government with a Sinn Fein prime minister. And it has threatened to boycott until the protocol is scrapped, a position that has received little support outside its hard core.
“There is fragmentation within parties trying to reflect a more secular Northern Ireland,” said Katy Hayward, a professor of politics at Queen’s University Belfast. “That fits uncomfortably with the architects of the peace agreement. There is now no dominant group. We are all minorities.”
In this more complex landscape, Professor Hayward said, Sinn Fein would likely rule much as it campaigned, focusing on competent management and sound policy rather than mobilizing an urgent campaign for Irish unity.
Michelle O’Neill, the leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland who will be appointed as the prime minister, praised what she called “the election of a generation”. But she said little about Irish unity. Sinn Fein’s general leader Mary Lou McDonald said this week she could foresee a referendum on Irish unification within ten years, and possibly “within five years”.
For the trade unionists, the path out of the wilderness is more difficult to chart. Professor Hayward said the DUP faced a difficult choice as to whether or not to participate in the next government.
If it refuses, it would be contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. It would also risk further alienating voters, especially “soft union members,” who have little patience for continued paralysis in government.
But joining the next government brings its own dangers. The DUP swung to the right during the campaign to fend off a challenge from the tougher Traditional Unionist Voice party. It has made its opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol an article of faith.
“There may be serious talks about union unity now, but there won’t be any government unless protocol goes,” said David Campbell, chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council, which represents a group of pro-union paramilitary groups who are vehemently against protocol.
That puts the future of the DUP out of your hands, as the decision to revise the protocol rests with the British government. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he is open to that – especially if it would facilitate a new Northern Ireland government – but he has to weigh other considerations.
Overthrowing the protocol would heighten tensions with the European Union and even risk sparking a trade war, a grim prospect at a time when Britain is already facing soaring inflation and warnings that its economy could collapse later this year. could end up in a recession.
It would also antagonize the United States, which has warned Mr Johnson not to do anything that would jeopardize the Good Friday Agreement.
“The Biden administration has made it very clear that the protocol poses no threat to the Good Friday Agreement,” said Bobby McDonagh, a former Irish ambassador to Britain. “It actually helps to support the Good Friday Agreement. That will be kind of a limitation for Johnson.”