By Conor Joseph Donnan*
(FPRI) — Walking down the streets of the Falls Road in Belfast, visitors often notice a singular, highly visible phrase: Tiocfaidh ar la (Irish for “Our day will come”). Tiocfaidh ar la is a prophecy for Irish nationalists, particularly Sinn Féin, the political party that most outspokenly promises the end of the partition of the island of Ireland between Northern Ireland (which remains part of the United Kingdom) and the Republic of Ireland.
After the Northern Ireland assembly elections on May 5, many Irish nationalists believe their day finally came as Sinn Féin won Northern Ireland’s assembly election to become the largest party in Stormont. While many cite Brexit as the driver for Sinn Fein’s recent ascension to power, this surge of support has been years in the making, driven by the party’s emphasis on working-class politics, and focus on young voters.
In the Northern Ireland assembly elections, members from various nationalist and pro-British unionist parties battled for a share of Stormont’s 90 seats. Sinn Féin won 27 seats, two more than their nearest rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The Alliance Party, which portrays itself as an alternative to the unionist versus nationalist fault line in Northern Irish politics, surged in the polls, which benefited Sinn Féin. Alliance gained three former DUP seats and four nationalist seats, but the nationalist seats did not belong to Sinn Féin. As a result, Sinn Féin emerged as clear winners in the election. Sinn Féin’s triumph in the 2022 election marks the first time that a nationalist party won the most seats in Stormont and thus the right to nominate Northern Ireland’s first Irish Catholic first minister.
Unionists have dominated Northern Ireland’s executive since the partition of Ireland in the 1920s. Even as they agreed to the creation of an Irish Free State making up much of the island, the British government created the state of Northern Ireland to enshrine Protestant unionist hegemony in those counties that remained part of the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, the region possessed a significant minority of Irish Catholics who were treated as second-class citizens. After thirty years of violent conflict known as the Troubles, Irish Catholics were given a legitimate say in government through the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Under the agreement, nationalists and unionists share power in a forced coalition government. Unionists have still held a stranglehold on the First Minister position in the executive while nationalists occupied the deputy position in Stormont.
The victory is testimony to Ireland’s political transformation over the past decade. Once a political pariah due to its connections to the Irish Republican Army, Sinn Féin is now indisputably the largest party on the island. The party topped the popular vote in the Republic of Ireland in 2020 with a total of over 500,000 votes. Yet, they were denied the opportunity to govern as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael set aside their historic rivalry to form a coalition government. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil trace their rivalry back to being on opposite sides of the Irish Civil War in the 1920s, but are the only parties to ever hold the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) position and they both adhere to center-right political ideologies. Neither party wanted left-leaning Sinn Féin to break their duopoly.
In the aftermath of 2020, Sinn Féin masterfully portrayed Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as an “old boys club” willing to “set aside the democratic mandate” of the electorate to exclude Sinn Féin and maintain the political status quo. Sinn Féin has obtained over 250,000 first preference votes in the Stormont elections, the largest share of votes at around 29 percent. The Stormont victory means the party will hold the most seats in an institution originally built to suppress Irish nationalism and Irish Catholics.
A Wee Bit on Brexit
Politicians and reporters are framing the victory as an effect of the backlash against Brexit. Undoubtedly, the British exit from the European Union reinvigorated the Irish nationalist movement. In 2016, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union by a majority of 56 percent, but was forced to leave along with the rest of the United Kingdom. Sinn Féin opposed Brexit because it threatened the nature of the Good Friday Agreement, which is built, in part, upon the European Union’s commitment to freedom of movement and human rights protections. In opposing Brexit, the party stood with most voters in Northern Ireland and served as their most prominent voice.
Brexit also highlighted missteps by the party’s rivals, such as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). After the 2017 Westminster elections resulted in a hung parliament, the DUP entered a coalition government with the Conservative Party, who needed the DUP to shore up a faltering majority. Theresa May’s Conservative Party held 317 seats, which was 9 short of the 326 seats needed to government in an outright majority. The DUP offered their 10 seats to form a coalition with May’s party, which pushed the Conservative Party over the 326 threshold for a majority.
The DUP believed they would be fundamental in advancing the Conservative Party’s Brexit agenda while preserving the connection between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. In doing so, the DUP tied themselves to Brexit and the Conservative Party in the minds of the electorate in Northern Ireland.
Unfortunately for the DUP leadership, the Conservative Party pushed them overboard when politically expedient. Between 2017 and 2019, May tried to balance the desires of pro-Brexit Conservatives, the DUP, and the European Union. The British government did not expect the sticking point of Brexit negotiations to come in the form of the Irish border. Yet, the Republic of Ireland and its allies in the European Union maintained that any border on the island of Ireland would hinder the Irish economy and the Good Friday Agreement. The Irish government, European Union, and United States held firm with the United Kingdom on the question of a land border in Ireland, but the DUP maintained that the Conservative Party needed to ensure a hard border to protect Northern Ireland’s British heritage. It became clear to Conservatives that their Brexit dreams were being weighed down by the DUP, so they searched for an opportunity to force them to walk the plank.
In 2019, Boris Johnson wrestled control of the Conservative Party from May after she had been outclassed by the European Union during Brexit negotiations. Johnson promise to “get Brexit done” won the hearts of British voters during the 2019 election cycle. Johnson, who rose to power criticizing the European Union as a foreign correspondent in Brussels, led the Conservatives to a massive majority in 2019. The Tories obtained 365 seats in the House of Commons and immediately reneged on all the Conservative promises to the DUP. Once in office, Johnson realized that the United Kingdom overestimated its bargaining chips against the European Union and the United States, so he was forced to concede to their demands on Ireland. The British government assumed the European Union would prioritize the U.K.’s interests, but the EU hoped to punish the British for leaving the union and they saw Ireland as the poster child for European incorporation. To make matters worse for the British, the United States saw the Good Friday Agreement as one of their crowning foreign policy achievements over the last three decades.
When the United Kingdom officially left the European Union on January 31, 2020, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland became the only land border between the United Kingdom and European Union. It also represented a distinction between Irishness and Britishness for the DUP and the Conservative Party. Brussels and Washington argued that the invisible border protected the EU single market and avoided destabilizing the peace in Ireland.
Since the imposition of a “hard border” in Ireland was dead in the water, Boris Johnson agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which placed a sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Under the Protocol, Northern Ireland maintains EU rules surrounding the free movement of goods and customs, which ensures there are no land borders in Ireland. However, the Protocol betrayed unionists like the DUP because it created a de facto customs border in the Irish Sea that separates Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Unionists, including the DUP, had hoped Brexit would bring Northern Ireland closer to the rest of Britain, but Johnson and the Conservatives instead made a united Ireland a more viable option by pushing the North and South together. Ever since, unionists have been aimlessly swimming without a paddle.
Sinn Féin’s Rising
Nevertheless, Sinn Féin’s victory was not primarily about Brexit. In fact, it can be traced back to the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016. The mythology surrounding the Easter Rising is central to the Republic of Ireland because it blends traditional Irish nationalism with left-leaning principles. James Connolly, one of the fundamental leaders of the Rising, was a member of socialist organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World and the Irish Socialist Republican Party. The 2016 commemoration of a violent left-leaning rebellion against British imperialism played into the hands of Sinn Féin. Ireland’s two major parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, had governed as center-right organizations since the inception of the country. They often portrayed themselves as a peaceful political establishment against violent outsiders such as Sinn Féin. The political establishment saw Sinn Féin’s commitment to hold a border poll on a united Ireland as outdated.
One hundred years after the Rising, it became increasingly difficult to celebrate a violent Irish nationalist insurrection against the British while condemning Sinn Féin’s past connections to the modern Irish Republican Army fighting the British in Northern Ireland. Understanding their predicament, the Irish government engaged in a minimalist celebration of the centenary that was widely condemned by Irish people. In contrast, Sinn Féin promoted its own celebration program that included parades, reenactments, and exhibitions. Importantly, Irish people utilized the centenary celebrations to discuss the unfulfilled promises of the Rising, which Sinn Féin capitalized on to refine their platform. After witnessing voter discontent surrounding housing, the rising cost of living, and 70 years of two-party dominance, the party realized its strength lay in its ability to blend nationalism and leftist populism in the North and South.
Since 2016, Sinn Féin has refocused its agenda and discourse to combine the anti-establishment populist left in the Republic of Ireland with their traditional nationalist strongholds in Belfast, Armagh, and Derry to create one overarching movement. The party’s political strategy appealed to the economic concerns of working people and harnessed the power of younger voters in the same manner that the Easter Rising’s leaders tried to do over a hundred years earlier.
Under the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald, an elected representative in Dublin, the party has reframed its rhetoric on unification to market it positively to moderates in both the North and South. The party emphasized building an “Ireland of equals” in a “planned, orderly, democratic, and entirely peaceful” manner. While unionists utilized traditional fearmongering to scare their base about the potential of Irish nationalists leading Stormont, Sinn Féin’s representative in Stormont, Michelle O’Neill, ran on the promise that she would be the “First Minister for all.” She championed nationalist causes such as Acht Gaeilge (the Irish Language Act), but she also praised Queen Elizabeth on her upcoming Platinum Jubilee. The DUP’s negative campaign against the idea of Irish Catholics controlling the First Minister position in Stormont backfired. It galvanized the nationalist vote, while the positive messaging of Michelle O’Neill won over moderate voters.
Sinn Féin is selling a better vision of Ireland’s future to working people in the North and South. On election day, O’Neill outlined her vision to “speak to the future” by focusing on getting “money in peoples’ pockets.” She understands that Brexit, COVID-19, and the war in Ukraine have devastated the Irish economy on both sides of the border. Thus, in the Stormont election, the party wisely focused on combatting the “cost-of-living-crisis” and fixing the “health service” by cutting hospital waiting times. The party pledged to invest over $1 billion in healthcare and $300 million to alleviate the cost of living. In the Republic of Ireland, they have fought for a living wage, reduced rent prices, endorsed trade union collective bargaining rights, and pledged to increase social welfare payments. In 2020, Sinn Féin introduced the Trade Union Representation Bill, which gained support from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Imelda Munster, a Sinn Féin representative, noted, “trade unions are the best way that workers have to protect their terms and conditions. A level playing field is needed, and this Bill brings that to the table.”
Sinn Féin’s left-leaning political platform embraces social and economic policies that resonate with Gen Z and millennials. Millennials and Gen Z voters make up close to 2 million of the island’s 4.7 million registered voters in the North and South. The party endorses LGBTQ+ rights and the pro-choice movement, which polls well with young voters. Sinn Féin senator Lynn Boylan is a vocal supporter of marginalized communities, openly criticizing transphobia and anti-traveler discrimination in Ireland. The party has also committed to addressing the economic concerns of young people by pledging to abolish student fees and introduce free fares on public transport for all children. Critics have condemned the party for being an “all-Ireland abortion party” and engaging in “woke politics.” Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, the biggest critic of Sinn Féin, lampooned them as a “popular party” but not a “principled party” due to their links with the Irish Republican Army. Varadkar’s comments were condemned by major political figures, including members of his own party. Former Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell argued that “the methodology of attacking Sinn Féin for sins, or perceived sins, of the past, doesn’t seem to wash with younger voters. So from a vote-getting strategy, it doesn’t look to be working.” Indeed, 45 percent of people under 35 support the party in the Republic of Ireland, and they hold a 15 percent lead among young voters in Northern Ireland over the DUP.
Notably, the party has been able to transform criticisms into strengths. In Northern Ireland, the left-wing movement “People Before Profit” have attempted to label Sinn Féin an establishment party. Certainly, Sinn Féin has consistently been the second-largest party in Stormont. However, Sinn Féin’s claim to an opposition-in-government role lies in its criticism of Brexit and its stated goal of creating a united Ireland. Sinn Féin’s nationalist support base has stayed intact because it believes Sinn Féin will enact promised change from within Stormont. Conversely, in the South, the two-party political establishment of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael portrayed Sinn Féin as outsiders with no governing experience. But Sinn Féin has been able to ride the electorate’s desire for change while simultaneously touting their governing experience in Stormont. This big tent approach allows it to act as either opposition or a governing force depending on the electorate’s circumstances and views.
With over 750,000 votes across the island’s two governments, Sinn Féin is the most significant force in Irish politics. The New York Times, Guardian, and the BBC portray the party’s Stormont victory as a shocking shift in Irish politics, but Sinn Féin has been the largest party in Ireland since 2020. Since 2016, it has paved its path to success in both the North and South of Ireland by courting young votes, prioritizing its left-leaning platform, reframing its message surrounding Irish unity, and strictly opposing Brexit. Now, they are poised to ride the momentum from this victory to victory in the 2025 general election in the Republic of Ireland. Their rivals are weak. Unionists such as the DUP face the identity crisis of Brexit and no longer hold a majority in Northern Ireland. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael lost the popular vote to Sinn Féin in 2020 and were forced to form a coalition.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s downplayed Sinn Féin’s victory by highlighting the rise of Alliance as an alternative to the nationalist-unionist dichotomy. In fact, the statement demonstrates the out-of-touch nature of Varadkar and Martin among young voters. Alliance tailors its message to moderate voters and claims “neutrality” on the nationalist-unionist dichotomy, but the party’s roots come from being a unionist party for the wealthy. While around 30 percent of their vote come from people who identify as Irish Catholic, those voters tended to be pro-union with the United Kingdom. In reality, Alliance is closer to a unionist version of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which acts as a moderate affluent nationalist party, than a groundbreaking non-sectarian party. Alliance may eventually become a truly non-sectarian, cross-community party, but it has not reached that objective in 2022.
Importantly, Sinn Féin has a near-monopoly of support from Irish-Americans and politicians in the United States. In the first half of 2020, the party raised $270,000 through Friends of Sinn Féin, a US nonprofit organization. The organization has raised tens of millions of dollars in the United States since the Good Friday Agreement. As Washington realizes that a prosperous Ireland is their strongest ally in the European Union, politicians such as Rep. Brendan Boyle are making an economic and political case for a united Ireland. Ireland’s place as the cultural and economic link between the United States and the European Union is only growing stronger as the United Kingdom grows more isolated from the global community. President Joe Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have cautioned unionists and the United Kingdom on undermining the Good Friday Agreement, and organizations such as the American Brexit Committee have openly condemned British handling of Northern Ireland. The majority of parties in the Republic of Ireland pay lip service to Irish unity and the Good Friday Agreement, but Sinn Féin is the only brand name in households throughout the United States. Therefore, they are the most likely to benefit from any potential growth in support for Irish unity in Washington.
Sinn Féin has found its winning political formula in a growing base in the youth vote and an increasing belief among voters North and South that Irish unity is more likely. However, a united Ireland is not inevitable. The biggest obstacles remain the continuous crisis over Brexit, the lack of unionist buy-in to a united Ireland, the Southern establishment’s traditional distrust of Irish nationalist parties such as Sinn Féin, and the fact that ultimate power to call a border poll remains within the discretion of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Certainly, a British government ruled by Conservatives will not allow the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to call for a poll, and some Unionists have threatened a return to violence if a united Ireland were achieved.
Nevertheless, the fact that a majority of young people in Northern Ireland now support Irish unity bodes very well for republicanism. The streets of Dublin and Cork are covered in pro-unity graffiti such as “26+6+1” (26 represents the counties of the Republic of Ireland and the 6 represents the counties in Northern Ireland, which equals the 32 counties of the island). Like it or not, Sinn Féin’s day has come. The party is the future of Irish politics, and a united Ireland could be on the horizon.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
*About the author: Conor Joseph Donnan is a visiting lecturer in American Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Donnan’s expertise lies in Irish politics, anti-colonialism, Indigenous politics, and the American West.
Source: This article was published by FPRI