Henry McDonald: Sinn Fein’s day in the sun but no new dawn for Irish unity

Like the sheep in George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ who repeatedly bleat “Four Legs Good, Two legs Bad” London-based newsrooms this weekend will be ba ba baaing out their own mantra about the outcome of the Northern Ireland Assembly election.

By Henry McDonald
Saturday, 7th May 2022, 7:57 am
Updated Monday, 9th May 2022, 5:40 am
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald at the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast, as counting continues for the Northern Ireland Assembly. PA Photo. Picture date: Friday May 06 2022. See PA story ULSTER Election. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald at the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast, as counting continues for the Northern Ireland Assembly. PA Photo. Picture date: Friday May 06 2022. See PA story ULSTER Election. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Their reporters and commentators will be repeating the equation over and over that Sinn Fein’s poll position among the parties equals a border poll equals a united Ireland.

The trouble for the big picture pundits across the Irish Sea is the politics of this place are more complicated than that.

Undoubtedly the Province has arrived at an important juncture with Sinn Fein emerging as the single biggest party, entitled as it is through the democratic process to nominate Michelle O’Neill as first minister.

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During the campaign Sinn Fein shrewdly toned down the border poll/Irish unity rhetoric and even during Mary Lou McDonald’s triumphant procession into the Titanic count centre last night the party leader avoided any mention of the referendum.

Of course she doesn’t need to as the London-based and international media will recycle the mantra for her by insisting Sinn Fein as the number one party will start a chain reaction leading to Irish unity.

But the reality is the combined nationalist vote is still under 40% and that chimes with the last opinion poll which found support for Irish unity hovering around the mid to late 30s.

Even if Jim Allister returns to the Assembly as the TUV’s sole representative the party’s increased share of first preference votes will put further pressure on Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to remain true to his promise that the DUP cannot enter any new Executive until there are radical changes to the NI Protocol, which will certainly not feature in the Queen’s Speech next week.

We are in for months of political stasis, eventual multi-party negotiations and possibly even a new election in the autumn or winter.

As for Mr Allister, however, it would be unwise to dismiss him given that he has been one of the leading and most articulate figures in the anti-protocol campaign.

Another lesson from this election is that with the exception of Sinn Fein-dominated West Belfast there appear to be no permanent citadels in Northern Ireland. As Alliance’s campaign manager in South Belfast Ian Parsley points out, his party has breached the walls of an SDLP stronghold. In the 2003 election Alliance was in sixth place but today it is the largest party in South Belfast.

South Down was once upon a time another citadel for the SDLP but the party of Eddie McGrady and Margaret Ritchie is left this weekend with only one MLA and like the UUP, who also suffered losses, must surely be wondering if in the next Assembly opposition is their best option to recover and rebuild.

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