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To say Sinn Féin now has democratic legitimacy is stating the obvious

If the Assembly election underlined the party’s progress, it is also exposed its limits

SSinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill (centre) takes a selfie with party leader Mary Lou McDonald (right) at the Northern Ireland Assembly election count centre in Derry. Photograph: Stringer/EPA

The Northern Ireland Assembly election ends any issue of Sinn Féin’s legitimacy as a party of government in the south. In my view that debate was long over. But for slow learners in the rarefied circles that incongruously overlap with the upper echelons of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, reticence towards Sinn Féin lingers on. More than political opposition, it equates an undeserved sense of auld decency to themselves.

Their pro forma support for the SDLP – but little else by way of practical help – was continued. It is the hand washing associated with a troubled conscience. The SDLP alliance pursued by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has the electoral potency of surreptitious toasts to “the king over the water” decades after defeat at the Battle of the Boyne. The era is over. Unlike the Stuarts, history will be kind to the SDLP. It is voters who are not. The political reality is that Friday’s Assembly election coming after a good result for Sinn Féin in 2017, is a clear endorsement of it by nationalists a generation after the Belfast Agreement. In the south the party got the largest number of votes in the 2020 general election. It is to state the obvious that Sinn Féin has democratic legitimacy.

Sinn Féin economics may well damage the country but voters will be hard pressed to distinguish their imprudence from the Government's

If ultimately that legitimacy comes at the ballot box, some of the circumstances which delivered it are owned to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Government formation in 2020 in which each of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael opted for office over power, knowingly handed Sinn Féin pole position as the main opposition party. It was a Faustian pact that is arguably the single most consequential political decision in southern politics so far in the 21st century. For Fianna Fáil especially which briefly had leverage, and could have for the very last time, led a government in which it and not Sinn Féin was the larger partner, it was an epic error of judgement and act of cowardice. From that, comes much of Sinn Féin’s rise in the south since. In government now that party would be lucky to be swimming and not sinking.

A critical issue carelessly abandoned to Sinn Féin by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is of economic competence. In a world where free money and low inflation is over, there are now only competing degrees of irresponsibility in Irish politics. Sinn Féin economics may well damage the country but voters will be hard pressed to distinguish their imprudence from the Government’s.


Giving free rein to Sinn Féin in opposition was ultimately the political choice of Fianna Fáil. If Fine Gael has any purpose it is economic sobriety. Covid-19 left no choice but to borrow and spend. The scale in Ireland, adding to already high debt, was higher than elsewhere or was required. It leaves us deeply exposed at exactly the moment the economic cycle is turning.

As important as the economic facts, is the public conversation. The government complains that for Sinn Féin no intervention is sufficient nor any expenditure enough. But it is the government that has abandoned the argument for fiscal responsibility. Its internal politics is organised on the basis that none of the three party’s in government need be discommoded, because everything can be paid for. There is now no centre-right in Irish politics. Having abandoned economically what is its foundational position, Fine Gael and by extension the government have abdicated a critical point of difference with Sinn Féin which now owns the talking points.

Of course there is no possibility in sight of a successful Border poll and Friday's poll is further proof of that

If the Assembly election underlined Sinn Féin’s progress, it also exposed its limits. It is an all-Ireland party but not, as it claims, a united Ireland party. It has established tribal supremacy and built a broad coalition within nationalism to do so. It is no longer a party of the ghetto but it has no traction whatever outside the tribe. The political scene in Northern Ireland for the next generation is likely to be of competing minorities. Unionist hegemony is over. If, and it is an enormous if, an agreement is reached between the UK and EU on the protocol, then I believe it is likely the DUP would, or would have no choice but to form an administration with a Sinn Féin first minister. That would upend the purpose of Northern Ireland, while simultaneously preserving its existence.

As soon as the ballot boxes were opened on Saturday morning McDonald reordered her talking points. It was back to the demand for a Border poll. She is fastidious in her choice of words. It should be within five years but certainly in this decade and of course we should begin to prepare now. The move towards a united Ireland would be entirely peaceful and democratic. Of course there is no possibility in sight of a successful Border poll and Friday’s poll is further proof of that. The greatest danger is that Boris Johnson would opportunistically facilitate one and leave Sinn Féin exposed.

So long as a Border poll is demanded but out of reach it has political potency. The SDLP and Fianna Fáil are diminished. On Irish republicanism, Sinn Féin owns the talking points. It has outdone its competitors in pragmatism, and left them with only one remaining core principle, which is keep it out. Sinn Féin is ready to lead in two separate partitionist parliaments on the island. It may be parody but it is politically compelling.