Defeat hardens the spirit. Victory exaggerates expectations. And misgivings, when dragged on for more than a century, add disappointments and joys like simple points in an endless game. “It’s a fantastic thing. It is time for us Catholics to rule after waiting more than 100 years”, exclaims Kate Osborne, 71, as she looks at the cover of the tabloid DailyMirror in a hairdresser’s in the center of Belfast. Nothing equals the British tabloid press, or the English language, when it comes to punning its headlines. win fein (Féin wins), to announce the historic victory of Sinn Féin in the Northern Ireland regional elections held last Thursday. The Republican formation, considered for years the political arm of the terrorist organization IRA, has become the most voted party, ahead of the unionists of the DUP.
His candidate, Michelle O’Neill, aspires to occupy the position of main minister of the Autonomous Government, as stipulated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that put an end to decades of sectarian violence. The text also stipulates, however, that republicans and unionists must govern jointly, which in practice means that the first and second positions have the same power. But the leader of the DUP, Jeffrey Donaldson, humiliated by the defeat, has already put on the table the condition of his formation so that the autonomous institutions recover stability: the Ireland Protocol, the agreement signed between London and Brussels to remove Brexit goes ahead, it must be annulled.
A majority of Northern Ireland voted against leaving the EU in 2016. The Protocol solution was, for many citizens, the opportunity to have the best of both worlds. Belonging to the United Kingdom, and permanence in the internal market of the EU. The new customs border would be imposed in the Irish Sea. For the unionists, the protocol was a betrayal that further alienated them from the common British home. “That’s an excuse, like so many others they’ve used when it was their turn to hand over part of the control,” says Kate with undisguised irony. “Like Reverend Ian Paisley’s refusal to sit next to former IRA member Martin McGuinness. As soon as he started playing power, they became inseparable friends.”
Do you like the idea that there are so many women, starting with its leader, Mary Lou McDonald, and the candidate, Michelle O’Neill, at the head of Sinn Féin? “I love it,” Kate replies. “Without a doubt, it is something very important. But for me the key has been that the game has been upside down at all times. He has announced a future unification referendum, but calmly. The priority now is to improve people’s well-being. Put an end to health or housing crises. And people, especially the new generations, have listened, ”she explains.
Yesterday Saturday morning, when the counting of votes continued, but the victory of the Republicans was already unquestionable, could not have been brighter. There was hardly a cloud to be seen and the sun brought beauty to even the most dilapidated buildings on Shankill Road, the historic street that concentrates the most recalcitrant Protestant population in Belfast. Wesley (31 years old) and Andrew (25 years old) are reluctant to give their last names, although they do not hesitate to expand to explain what happened in the elections. So it is with decades of resentment. An attempt is made to preserve one last redoubt of anonymity. They walk with their arms crossed, to protect themselves from the morning frost or as a permanent way of expressing their current anger with the world. “These people are the same as always. Now he tries to hide or deny his ties to the IRA, and it works for them. They have spent 15 years selling a message of kindness, promises of improvement for everyone, like no one else, and many have believed it, ”says Andrew about Sinn Féin.
Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.
His friend, hiding his gaze behind his sunglasses, nods while also seeking the journalist’s assent. “Of course the Protocol is important. [con Bruselas]Wesley adds. “It has been another false promise, like Brexit. And now the Unionist community has ended up divided and fragmented. As long as they do not hide their true will to speed up the reunification of Ireland”, he complains. The two friends are self-employed, earning a living doing lawn maintenance.
It is curious to contrast the bitterness they express with their conviction, during the conversation, that everything had improved in recent decades, and cooperation projects between Protestants and Catholics were becoming more and more solid. The integration, it seems, must take its rhythms and avoid shocks like those of Thursday. Unionism has become somewhat more radical and numantine. What the DUP has lost, has been gained by the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice), a more radical alternative and uncompromising.
“And many don’t seem to have understood that people are fed up with sectarianism. That all he wants is for healthcare to work, schools to work, and life to be a little better for everyone,” explains Paul Burns, 58, owner of the Belfast Bookshop, with a knowing smile. Or what’s left of it. He took all his books on the history, politics and traditions of Northern Ireland to one of the stalls at St George’s Market, a late 19th century building that brings together crafts, antiques and fresh local produce, and is one of the main attractions of the new Belfast.
“Do not fool yourself. No one wants to rush reunification. It would be something very complex and costly, and many things have been done here with all the money that has come from the British Government and international institutions,” says Paul. “Simply, the old parties have been wrong and their leaders are worse. Arlene Foster, the former leader of the DUP, would not have blown up the institutions, as her successor, Donaldson, has done. Everybody wants Stormont to work,” he says. Stormont is the name given to the Autonomous Assembly that has existed, between intervals of paralysis and blockade, for almost a quarter of a century. And that threatens to enter a period of hibernation again, unless unionism accepts that it is time to share power from a secondary position and that London does not seem very willing, for the moment, to unleash a trade war with Brussels to put peace in Belfast.
Exclusive content for subscribers
read without limits