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Real impact of NI Assembly elections to be on unionist morale

‘We now have a nationalism that is confident ... Sinn Féin can take Stormont’

Last month, political historian Dr Éamon Phoenix watched as portraits of Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera were unveiled at Stormont in an exhibition reflecting its history since partition.

"In 1921, Sinn Féin wouldn't even take their seats. The Nationalist party as it was, the predecessor to the SDLP under Joe Devlin, said partition was 'national suicide'," Phoenix, an advisor to the exhibition, told The Irish Times.

"Then you fast forward 100 years, and just as they're actually hanging the portraits of De Valera and Collins along with James Craig (the North's First Prime Minister), the irony is that you have this demographic shift beginning to work its way through - when Sinn Féin is likely to be the biggest political party and hold the First Minister Office if an Executive is restored.

“In the offing, you have the possibility of a Sinn Féin Taoiseach in the south in the next couple of years.”

If the opinion polls are correct ahead of the May 5 elections, it will be the first time in Northern Ireland’s history that a unionist will not head up its government.

Nationalism has never been more in a more confident position, according to Phoenix.

“It is seismic in a way but the real impact is going to be on the morale of unionism,” he adds.

It was during the last Assembly elections in 2017 that the north’s political landscape was radically altered, when unionists no longer held a majority position.

Watershed result

In what was a watershed result, the DUP came within one seat of losing the election to Sinn Féin.

"For the first time, Unionists who describe themselves as unionists on the ballot paper were in the minority…they really didn't think that moment was coming," says Alex Kane, political commentator and former Ulster Unionist party head of communications.

"If it really is the case that Sinn Féin emerge as the largest party with the largest number of seats, you have the double whammy; a minority in terms of seat numbers but also, for the first time ever, unionists will no longer be able to stand up and say 'on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland' - because they're not anymore, unionists are not speaking for Northern Ireland, and that is why it is such a huge psychological shock," Kane adds.

Latest polling from the University of Liverpool/The Irish News survey shows that Sinn Féin's popularity is at 27 per cent, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lagging well behind its nationalist rivals by almost seven points.

In his Easter message to party members, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson described the election as a "battle for Northern Ireland itself" and has urged unionists to unite and transfer votes to pro-union candidates to avoid a nationalist taking Stormont's top job, warning that a Sinn Féin victory will hasten a "divisive Border poll."

Angered

His continued refusal to confirm whether his party will serve alongside a Sinn Féin First Minister as a Deputy First Officer - it is a joint office meaning the DUP has the power to block the formation of a new Executive - has angered many nationalists and will encourage Sinn Féin transfers.

“What we are seeing politically is unprecedented in any of our lifetimes, and probably in our parents’ lifetimes,” according to civic nationalist group Ireland’s Future member, Andrée Murphy.

“It is the centenary of partition and we’re seeing the constitutional question right at the heart of all conversations, no matter where you stand on it.”

Yet, says Kane, it is the lack of cohesion within unionism itself that has brought an end to its dominance at Stormont as opposed to increased support for Sinn Féin and aspirations towards Irish unity.

“From Sinn Féin’s point of view, as long as they keep a steady hand and don’t rock any boats - then they can just leave it to the unionists to fight among themselves,” he says.

Transfer votes

In such a climate, where then does this leave the other parties? Support for the north’s other main nationalist party, the SDLP, is at just over 11 per cent - though it is anticipated they could gain transfer votes in key constituencies due to the calibre of certain candidates.

Alliance, as the middle ground party, remains on course to be the assembly’s third largest party, according to the survey.

Political commentator Chris Donnelly says the SDLP know their pitch is not just within nationalism but "within that vast swathe of 'others'" - the Greens, Alliance - with party leader Colum Eastwood even urging tactical voting at the party's election launch.

“There’s a fait accompli that Sinn Féin are going to be the larger nationalist party. The question is whether the SDLP fall back or are they going to manage to pick off a couple of seats,” Donnelly adds.

In recent weeks, some commentators have pointed to the “softening” of Sinn Féin language around Irish Unity in the wake of polling which showed just 30 per cent of Northerners would vote for a united Ireland tomorrow.

Responding to the results, Michelle O’Neill said her pre-election “focus” was on the cost-of-living crisis.

Yet the reality remains in the North that, for all the talk of bread and butter issues, elections here are always overshadowed by the constitutional question.

Disconnected

For Murphy, the two issues can no longer be “disconnected”.

Chris Donnelly agrees:

“It’s not an either/or. You can walk and chew gum at the same time.

“What Sinn Féin are doing is trying to soften their language so people aren’t necessarily motivated by what they’re against. The DUP are talking up the border poll and Sinn Féin are trying to defuse that. It’s very interesting.”

Going by the opinion polls, Sinn Féin remains on roughly its 2017 performance - it received a 27.9 per cent vote share in that Assembly election - which hides a less successful performance the last time the North went to the polls, for the 2019 Westminster election.

Then, the seizing of the north Belfast seat by prominent lawyer John Finucane from the DUP's deputy leader Nigel Dodds was a high point which helped make up for a thumping in Foyle, where the sitting MP, Elisha McCallion, was defeated by the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood with a majority of more than 17,000.

Significantly, it is Finucane who takes centre stage in the party's television Assembly election broadcast - even though as MP he is not a candidate - with a strong emphasis on cross community "diversity", referencing the fact that some of his relatives are unionists and others even belong to the Orange Order.

As Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald used her Easter message to seek "partnership" with unionists on a united Ireland, she also called on the Irish Government to set up a Citizens' Assembly to discuss constitutional change in an "orderly, peaceful and democratic way".

“We now have a nationalism that is confident…and a situation today where Sinn Féin, 100 years on from opposing partition, is confident and in a position to take Stormont,” says Phoenix.

“Unionism is not only divided but disconcerted and is really going to find it very difficult to come to terms with the ongoing demographic changes in this place.”

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