“Sinn Féin itself is today a modern, self-proclaimed socialist party with which the left inside and outside Ireland can easily identity.”
By Geoff Bell, Labour for Irish Unity
The 5th of May 2022 will long be remembered in Ireland. It was when British unionism was decisively rejected by a majority of voters in the northeast of Ireland, and when Sinn Féin secured the most first preference votes and seats to the Assembly parliament.
They won 26 per cent of the vote, compared to their nearest rivals, the Democratic Unionists, who received just 21.3 per cent. Overall, the votes of the main unionist parties declined 3.3 per cent to 40.1 per cent, although independent unionists won a further 0.8 per cent Anti-partition parties won 40.7 per cent. The Alliance Party, who take no stand on partition enjoyed an increase of first preference votes of 4.5 to 13.5 per cent. In terms of seats won, non-unionist parties won 53 out of the 90 seats, although neither unionist nor nationalist parties won a majority.
No-one should doubt the size of Sinn Féin’s victory and the magnitude of unionism’s defeat. Before “The Troubles” of 1968-98 unionism secured between 60 to 70 per cent of the votes in Ireland’s six north eastern counties. Their political leaders had established a semi-state of privilege, divide and rule, repression, and poverty for many. They favoured the descendants of those Protestants who had been sent to “settle” in Ireland by English and British rulers, pitching them against the native, rebellious Catholic Irish. The partition of Ireland in 1921 secured this state of affair and established “a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”, in the words of unionist Northern Ireland prime minister.
Sinn Féin are the heirs to a tradition that fought back. They are the modern representatives of an Irish republicanism first established by the United Irishmen whose first leadership leadership was Protestant, and who were inspired by the ideas of equality and justice which informed the French revolution. The United Irishmen attempted a revolution of their own in 1798. They were brutally put down, but their ideas lived on. These spoke of for uniting “the people of no property” against English colonial rule.
Sinn Féin itself is today a modern, self-proclaimed socialist party with which the left inside and outside Ireland can easily identity. In the European Parliament they are a member of the European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) group, a bloc which features left socialists and greens. Sinn Féin say: “We want a Europe of Equals – a partnership of equal sovereign states, promoting peace, demilitarisation, nuclear disarmament and the just resolution of conflicts, co-operating in social and economic development in Europe and beyond.”
In their manifesto for the Assembly election, they advocated an end to zero hours contract, a ban on firing and re-hiring workers – the case of P and O was cited – a “real living wage”, instead of a minimum wage – an end to selective education favoured by unionists, and an extension of trade union rights. They also called for more social housing, the lowest social rents in Britain or Ireland, a sharing of health facilities in the north and south and a large increase in spending on health. They promised further action against domestic violence, paid leave for carers and “a society that values and celebrate the diversity of our identities” Of the 34 candidates in the election 19 were women; the DUP fielded seven out of 30.
Despite such contrasts, even today there are those in Britain, including on the left, who still portray themselves or the British state as standing between two equally backward Irish tribes. This is an interpretation of history and the present reserved for the uniformed or contemporary English nationalists who believe in the superiority of their own “tribe”. To say, that Sinn Féin and the DUP are just two sides of the same coin is banal and lazy. Irish republicanism was founded on the principle of self-determination. Unionism has always been profoundly anti—democratic: it, and the British, refused to abide by the verdict of the 70 per cent of Irish who voted for an independent united Ireland in 1918; then it gerrymandered elections after partition in 1921.
The modern version is that the DUP and other unionists are looking for excuses not to sit in an Assembly executive in which a Sinn Féin member will be First Minister, despite the party’s election victory.
The decline of unionism can be contrasted with the growth of Alliance. While it is easy to dismiss Alliance as middle-of-the-road and middle class, and a party with unionist roots, its growth can be welcomed. Not so much as British commentators say because it stands between and the DUP and Sinn Féin, but because Alliance draws most of its votes from ex-unionists. We are seeing the re-birth of the Protestant liberalism which two and a half centuries ago was commonplace in Belfast and indeed helped produce the United Irishmen.
Sinn Féin and Alliance have already come together on a woman’s right to choose, on marriage equality, and against Brexit and in favour of the new arrangements with Europe. There is the start of a partnership there which has an important potential.
None of this means the final progressive dream of 32 country Ireland governed by the principles of self-determination will be achieved tomorrow. But that is the future. Indeed, initial research shows Sinn Féin’s votes were heaviest among young people.
By contrast unionism in Northern Ireland is dying. It has been a malevolent, supremacist philosophy, setting worker against worker in the name of religion, and dependent on the British establishment for its survival. For socialists and progressives in Ireland and elsewhere its decline should be celebrated. And we should all acknowledge and thank Sinn Féin for speeding that decline.
- Geoff Bell is a member of the executive of Labour for Irish Unity. His latest book The Twilight of Unionism, will be published by Verso later this year.