Polls have been anticipating for weeks a political turn in Northern Ireland that would fully justify the use of the adjective historic, which is so routinely abused in the headlines. Sinn Féin, for decades the political arm of the IRA terrorist organization and staunch defender of the reunification of the island, has a serious chance of becoming this Thursday, for the first time in more than 100 years of history – the British territory was constituted, as entity separated from the newly created Republic of Ireland, on May 3, 1921—in the formation with the most votes in the autonomous elections.
Although in practice the result derives in a paralysis of the Northern Irish institutions to which the citizens are already resigned, the emotional and sentimental blow that this turn of events can mean for the Protestant population has incalculable consequences. Northern Ireland was a geographical construction designed at the time to forever consolidate a pro-British majority.
There are several factors that, combined, have transformed the reality of the region. The arrival of peace and the end of terrorism; the sheer demographic push of the Catholic population; the transformation of Sinn Féin into a party with an emphasis on the social message while camouflaging its republican objectives; and a protocol signed by London and Brussels, the result of a Brexit rejected at the time by a Northern Irish majority, which has been interpreted by the most radical as a new and almost definitive stone on the grave of unionism.
The last poll made by the company LucidTalk for the diary the Belfast Telegraph grants Sinn Féin, and its main candidate, Michelle O’Neill, a majority of 26% of the vote, followed by the main unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which would obtain a support from the 19%. Other pro-British forces, such as the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) or the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) would achieve, respectively, 13% and 9%. That is to say, the Protestant formations still surpass the clearly Republican ones.
But the Good Friday Agreement, also called the Belfast Agreement, is clear in its instructions. Signed in 1998 to seal the peace and launch autonomous institutions in the region, it forces unionists and republicans to share government. The figures of chief minister and deputy chief minister have, in practice, the same power, but a clearly differentiated symbolism. And never, until now, had the possibility arisen that the first place would be occupied by an Irish nationalist.
While the Protestant community, according to the same survey by the LucidTalk company, is divided on what the response should be to the new reality (45% believe that their representatives should reject the post of deputy chief minister; 44% defend that the rules of the game), the nationalist population is scandalized by the announcement of the future boycott of the rules by their rivals. 90% would consider “unfair and unjustified” that they did not occupy the seat.
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Northern Ireland’s 25 years of autonomy have been bumpy and bumpy. Peace —with nuances, because there are still waves of vandalism in the streets and sectarian violence— did not bring political stability or normality. In 2017, it was Sinn Féin that left the Government and the Assembly, after accusing the DUP government of running a corruption scheme camouflaged under its renewable energy plans. The paralysis lasted three years, and required the intervention of the British Government, which threatened to recover powers in health, education, justice or security if the situation between Protestants and Catholics was not recomposed.
Led by Arlene Foster, the DUP backed leaving the EU and boycotted her parliamentary coalition in Westminster with the Conservative government of Theresa May. They ended up betrayed – this is how they have admitted to feeling now – by Boris Johnson. Anxious to achieve the desired Brexit, the prime minister signed the Northern Ireland protocol with Brussels, which retained this region under the rules of the European internal market, while promising his Protestant allies that he would defend tooth and nail the integrity territory of the United Kingdom. In practice, a new border was established in the form of customs controls in the Irish Sea.
If the Northern Irish business community has all this time called for reforms and flexibility for a protocol that has created unexpected trade frictions and costs, the unionist parties and paramilitary organizations that survive in the region have conspired to destroy the treaty signed with Brussels. The first, with a new abandonment of the autonomous institutions last February and his promise not to return to them until the protocol is abolished. The second, with a constant instigation of the most radical young people to resurrect in the protestant neighborhoods the ghost of street violence.
The first electoral results will be known throughout Friday. The last schools will close at 11:00 p.m. this Thursday, Spanish peninsular time. The complicated counting of the ballots, with a system of alternative choice of candidates so that the votes are not wasted, will lengthen the entire process. But, above all, it is the prospect of a deadlock in the negotiations to form a government that has caused discouragement to spread among many Northern Irish, convinced that everything will remain the same, however historic the vote may be. Third options, such as the successful Alliance party (16% support, according to the polls), the historic SDLP (11%) or the Greens (2%), more concerned with the economy or social welfare than tribal sectarianism, have gained a lot of strength in recent years, until to the point that many in Northern Ireland reconsider the need to modify the rigidity of the Belfast Agreement, which automatically distributes power between unionists or republicans.
There is a quiet secret, conveniently concealed by Sinn Féin and histrionically aired by the DUP, that has been latent in the campaign. The Good Friday Agreement contemplates the possibility of a referendum, if London allows it, to decide the reunification of Ireland. Nobody contemplates this reality in the next five or ten years. The latest survey published in this regard by The Irish Times points out that 54% of Northern Irish who turn out to vote would do so against a united Ireland, compared to 46% who would support that option. The fear that this tsunami is getting closer, especially if the consequences of the protocol signed with the EU convince Northern Ireland that Dublin represents their interests in Brussels better than London, has caused these elections to recover a tension that was never buried in the everything.
Johnson faces a vote of rejection in the municipal elections
Thousands of positions in the municipal governments of England, Wales and Scotland will also be put to the vote this Thursday. Local elections, historically used in part as a punitive vote for the party occupying Downing Street, have taken on much more importance on May 5. For many conservative deputies, they will be the way to measure how much electoral magnetism Boris Johnson still retains, after the irritation that the scandal of the prohibited parties during confinement unleashed among citizens.
An electoral debacle could precipitate the internal maneuvers to overthrow Johnson, today paralyzed so as not to interfere with the government’s management of the war in Ukraine. The scandal has never quite faded from the headlines, especially since it became known that the Metropolitan Police had decided to fine Johnson for his participation in one of the events with alcohol and without social distance in government offices. . It was the first time in history that a Prime Minister had broken the law in Downing Street. But, above all, the polls continue to reflect a deep anger of many conservative voters with Johnson’s behavior, at a time when many of them were even forced to not be able to visit – or even say goodbye after his death – to their loved ones. .
Some polls have even predicted a loss of the Conservative Party of up to 800 municipal representatives, who would pass into the hands of the Liberal Democrats or Labor. In recent days, these catastrophic forecasts have been softened, but any loss that exceeds 350 councilors or municipal positions would once again instil tension in the formation led by Johnson and cast doubt on the possibility that the prime minister would repeat as a candidate in the next general elections.