Henry McDonald: A few facts are in order amid breathless reportage about the ‘seismic shift’ towards Sinn Fein

The headlines of some of the ‘serious’ Sunday newspapers were as predictable as they were hyperbolic.

By Henry McDonald
Monday, 9th May 2022, 6:21 am
Updated Wednesday, 11th May 2022, 2:52 am
Henry McDonald is News Letter political editor
Henry McDonald is News Letter political editor

The Observer’s for instance was particularly over the top under its banner head: “Seismic Sinn Fein victory fuels debate on future of the Union.”

As a former correspondent for this publication, some of the assertions contained in some of the sentences of the front page report beneath the headline were jaw-dropping examples of stating the obvious, such as Sinn Fein regarding Northern Ireland as an “illegitimate entity” and being an “existential challenge to the UK”.

Moreover the tone of the reportage was breathless and lacked any nuance although to be fair in terms of international media organisations they were hardly alone this weekend.

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A few facts might have been in order to put all these seismic shifts and historic turn of events into some proper kind of perspective.

For a start Sinn Fein has returned to Stormont with 27 seats which is the same number the party had in the last Assembly election back in 2017. The party was two seats ahead of the DUP which shipped votes because of a splintering of the overall unionist vote across Northern Ireland.

The combined nationalist vote in the 2022 Assembly election turned out to be 39.4 percent of the overall vote but the unionist vote stayed above 40 percent and as Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis pointed out at the weekend there are still more unionist MLAs than nationalist ones in the new regional parliament.

The Secretary of State emphasised this when asked about the prospect of a Border Poll as evidence why he saw no need for such a plebescite in the near future.

Of course any future constitutional referendum will be fought and won on a new battleground - the growing centre space now occupied firmly by the Alliance Party which doubled its representation in the Assembly to 17.

Yet any such poll is of course far off into the future compared to the feverish imaginations of London, Dublin and other foreign newsrooms.

They forget that the final say on holding such a plebescite lies in the hands of the Secretary of State and for all the Tories’ duplicity over Brexit and the Protocol, it is impossible to imagine a Conservative governing giving the nod to a border poll here while continuing to resist Nichola Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum in Scotland. Acquiescing to Sinn Fein on a referendum in Northern Ireland would only unleash unprecedented political and moral pressure from the SNP for their own constitutional plebescite.

Pro-Union parties will have to learn some key lessons from the outcome of this election in terms of vote transfers, intra-unionist squabbling and the growth of the “neither” category of the population here, many of whom flocked to Alliance.

On a wider front, the two parties that lost most - the UUP and SDLP - have a lot of soul searching to do over the next few days.

At least one senior SDLP source admitted that perhaps the time has come for the party to form a proper opposition if and when a new Executive is formed. Perhaps some in the UUP are having similar thoughts.

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