The delicate balance could be endangered if as opinion polls are indicating Sinn Fein, the political arm of the anti-British separatist Irish Republican Army, now dormant but entirely defunct, wins more seats than the DUP in the Assembly, writes Ashis Ray
A cloud of uncertainty confronts Northern Ireland, one of the four constituents comprising the UK, as it goes to the polls to elect 90 members to its regional Assembly on May 5.
This, because Sinn Fein, a party identified as representing the minority Catholic community, is tipped to become the largest single party in the House, beating the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which historically enjoys the support of Protestants, the majority population in the region.
After decades of bad blood and violence between Protestants and Catholics, a historic peace accord arrived at Easter in 1998, known as the Good Friday Agreement, which ushered comparative reconciliation and calm in a part of Britain separated from the remainder of the British Isles by the Irish Sea and having a land border with the Catholic dominated Republic of Ireland to its south.
Protestant political parties fiercely loyal to the UK and their Catholic counterparts equally committed to independence from the UK and merger with the Republic of Ireland, accepted the principle of power sharing, with the position of First Minister going to the party with the highest number of seats in the Assembly; and that of Deputy First Minister allocated to the party with the second highest number of seats.
Thus far, the First Minister has been from the DUP and the Deputy First Minister from Sinn Fein.
The delicate balance could be endangered if as opinion polls are indicating Sinn Fein, the political arm of the anti-British separatist Irish Republican Army, now dormant but entirely defunct, wins more seats than the DUP in the Assembly.
The Belfast Telegraph on Friday published a LucidTalk survey, which forecast 26 per cent of votes for Sinn Fein and 20 per cent to the DUP.
A third pro-British, pro-Protestant party, the Ulster Unionist Party, could secure around 13 per cent of votes and the Traditional Unionist Voice, of the same genre, attracting 9 per cent. On the other side, a pro-Republic of Ireland, pro-Catholic force, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), might muster around 11 per cent.
In effect, the Unionists as they are called could cumulatively obtain about 42 per cent of electoral support; while Sinn Fein and SDLP, labelled nationalists or republicans, could muster about 37 per cent. Both the Protestant and Catholic groups, though, lack coordination between themselves, thereby neither being able to reach a consensus within themselves on an First Minister candidate. So, the rule that the largest party in the Assembly is entitled to have the First Minister will apply.
“The DUP has repeatedly refused to say if it would accept filling the role of deputy first minister if pushed into second place,” reported the Guardian.
Indeed, if it resists nominating a person as Deputy First Minister, government formation would become virtually impossible. Such a state of affairs has in the past been a recipe for lawlessness. DUP’s core backers who remain uncompromisingly opposed to Sinn Fein find propping up a government led by Sinn Fein unacceptable.
It is assessed by analysts that DUP’s plummeted popularity has been caused by it endorsing UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, which includes the Northern Ireland Protocol. This has cut adrift Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK as an economic entity so as to maintain the non-negotiable condition of an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland mandated in the Good Friday Agreement.
The Northern Irish people loyal to Britain are not only affronted by this economic estrangement, but their business are experiencing delays and distress from checks on movement of goods between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain and consequent shortages and a sharp increase in prices of essential items.
The campaign by parties who swear by the British union has been that if Sinn Fein emerges as the largest single party it will push for unification with the South, in an attempt to spread fear among voters allergic to such an idea. But the US, which brokered the Good Friday Agreement and is adamant about adherence to it, is unlikely to allow a change in the status quo.
President Joe Biden himself of Irish Catholic origin is likely to ensure Sinn Fein doesn’t rock the boat.
Meanwhile, one of the outcomes of the upcoming election could be the slight rise of the neutral Alliance party, which could command 16 per cent of votes, without, however, making a decisive difference to Northern Ireland’s age-old polarised politics.