By Edward Ferrin – as Chief Stormont Correspondent
With less than 100 days until polling day, the race for superiority within Unionism is still as close as it was last year with less than four months to election day. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s, Doug Beattie’s, and Jim Allister’s parties are now polling alongside each other – highlighting both a huge dissatisfaction with the Democratic Unionist Party since the 2019 Westminster Election, and the UUP now, for the first time, presenting a force in electoral politics that might return them to top spot within the pro-union camp.
As for nationalists, the polls predict somewhat less of a see-saw battle for supremacy – even as nationalists too have become disaffected with many missed opportunities with the direction of northern nationalism/republicanism. The two nationalist parties currently represented in the Assembly, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, have two very different nominees for the post of (Joint-) First Minister should nationalists secure a place within Stormont’s top offices. They will be the current deputy-First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, and the current Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon.
Out of all the assembly elections since 1998, Sinn Fein have been returned as the largest nationalist party on five occasions and the SDLP only once. As the seventh election to the assembly is around the corner, the latest Lucid Talk poll puts Sinn Fein on 25% and the SDLP on just 11%, whilst Aontú is polling a simple 1% of the popular vote. One massive question northern nationalism has probably failed to answer truthfully or even considered at all is whether the current voice of northern nationalism within Sinn Fein is actually going to deliver the prize of a United Ireland.
The prospect of a border poll has been put on the agenda of election campaigns for almost every election in Northern Ireland’s history. For the past 21 years, Sinn Fein has had the opportunity to lead northern nationalism from the front and with the recent political climate, they now believe they can achieve a united Ireland within the next 10 years. Unionism in Northern Ireland is assured and almost too confident that this is a false interpretation to make on the political scene for a very long time to come.
What the nationalist electorate needs to answer is whether Sinn Fein has achieved and kept their promises from the 2017 electoral mandate. Michelle O’Neill refused to return to power-sharing government until their coalition partners within the DUP accepted the doctrine of “equality, respect and integrity” in decision-making. Sinn Fein demanded that equal marriage and abortion rights be legalised, as well as putting a stop to Brexit, introducing an Irish language act, and Arlene Foster stand aside as First Minister until the report into RHI was published.
It is a note of fact that equal marriage and abortion rights were legalised within Northern Ireland while there wasn’t a power-sharing government between 2017 and 2020. Theresa May’s government allowed legislation to pass through Westminster to legalise these rights to Northern Ireland, a place where Sinn Fein’s 7 Westminster MPs didn’t take their seats or engage with the bills as they came through Parliament. Sinn Fein didn’t achieve much more of their “red lines” they stood upon at the 2017 election. When devolution was restored, Arlene Foster became First Minister alongside Michelle O’Neill – which was accepted by Sinn Fein before the RHI report was published. For all of the rallying behind the party in 2017 among nationalist voters, they failed to stop Brexit taking Northern Ireland out of the EU – an already unrealistic target defeated. However, it is Sinn Fein’s biggest 2017 promise which should be noted as a notorious failure, was their promise to have an Irish language act introduced into law – a failure wholly left at Michelle O’Neill’s door.
Sinn Fein are responsible for not granting legal rights in an Irish language act – they have brought the issue up at election time and then go silent on the issue outside of electioneering. An Irish language act was brought up in 1998, agreed for implementation in the DUP/Sinn Fein St. Andrew’s Agreement with the then Labour government at Westminster and again in 2017 as Michelle O’Neill refused to re-enter devolved government with the DUP. Even as recent as July 2021, Sinn Fein allowed the DUP to renege on their commitment to an Irish language act agreed in NDNA. Nationalists can’t just close their eyes and pretend this truth doesn’t matter or exist.
As for their general performance in power-sharing government over the past 21 years as the largest nationalist party, Sinn Fein has presided over deadlock and Stormont suspension which came to a head between 2017 and 2020. Their aim to have a border poll and a United Ireland has had two decades to be formulated, yet the party still doesn’t have a convincing argument as to how the north could be re-integrated with the south apart from help from the EU. Their planned constitutional system for a united Ireland is unknown, some party members believe Stormont should be scrapped, others believe it should remain. They’re only concrete argument is to criticise the Irish government and unionists for not setting up and taking part in a Citizen’s Assembly on what a united Ireland would look like.
With the advent of COVID-19 and the pandemic, we also seen the shameless attempts by Sinn Fein and Michelle O’Neill to excuse their lack of concern for social distancing or lockdown restrictions for Bobby Storey’s funeral. Again, when northern nationalists need strong, progressive leadership, Michelle O’Neill came under heavy fire and tried to wiggle her way from the focus of media attention and public outrage. Nationalists can’t overlook these serious failings by Sinn Fein just because they “will stop the DUP,” the same unionist party they work hand in hand with and have done for nearly two decades now. If unionists are having an electoral re-think in 2022, it’s time nationalists begin doing the same. The more sensitive issue of dealing with our violent past has also given no hope for a United Ireland in which unionists would feel at home. The fact that Sinn Fein still haven’t condemned murders, bombings and innocent people being killed by the republican “armed struggle” has now made nationalists more entrenched into a metaphorical “armed struggle” in promoting unity and peaceful co-existence with their unionist neighbours. This is at the behest of Sinn Fein’s irresponsible task of portraying political resolution as the new means of advancing republicanism, whilst still excusing the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. This affects the attitude of unionists, especially when they see nationalist politicians argue for inquiries and prosecutions into loyalist killings or deaths at the hands of the security forces. Put simply, the leading nationalist party has become an obstacle to conflict resolution.
The only alternative (on the face of it) is for nationalists to make the decision to turn attention and electoral support back to the SDLP. The image of a middle class, catholic-conservative movement still hovers over the party, even if Colum Eastwood and Nichola Mallon has been leading the SDLP for the past few years from working class and left-wing backgrounds. The party has been the losers of the Good Friday Agreement, which hasn’t come out on top among nationalists since 1999. It has a lot of work to do between now and May 5th if it is to even close the gap on their nationalist rivals to single digits.
As Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna are both now Westminster MPs, Nichola Mallon as the SDLP leader at Stormont will be the party’s effective nominee for Stormont Castle. Having served as Minister for Infrastructure since January 2020, she has been regarded as one of the more popular ministers, seen to take on a more productive style in office.
Yet the DUP’s Jonathon Buckley as chair of the Infrastructure Committee at Stormont has become the MLA who has voiced childish arguments to his perceived “arch enemy” in Nichola Mallon and her decisions as Minister. Some people watching Sunday Politics have shown their disgust at his “over the top” criticism of the Minister and her party in an interview with Mark Carruthers. What was quite significant from this episode was the fact that his interview was based entirely upon ministerial policy and decisions made by the SDLP and not the constitutional question – any politically engaged nationalist should realise this to be a reason why Nichola Mallon might be a fresh start for Stormont and the Executive Office. You couldn’t imagine such a stance of a unionist MLA when challenging Sinn Fein – it wouldn’t be about policies, but just about orange and green or legacy of the past.
Under Colum Eastwood and Nichola Mallon, the SDLP has proposed ambitious policies for the ways forward for nationalists and Ireland in general. The creation of the New Ireland Commission has highlighted the SDLP’s willingness to begin planning a progressive vision towards Irish unity, to encourage and include unionists within the debate. The decisions undertaken by Nichola Mallon on all-island high-speed rail services, the narrow water bridge and proposals for more initiatives to promote more sustainable modes of transport have all been effective and popular decisions (except from the usual climate deniers).
Nationalists can no longer just sleepwalk to the polling station and vote for a party to “keep them out.” If a united Ireland is to be achieved, then the voting patterns of northern nationalists needs to change and embrace changes at the top of the tree. The most important question at the election this year has got to be how can nationalists finally achieve the goal of a united Ireland? Is it through a continual ramble from a Sinn Fein MLA or TD as to what it might look like, or a clear vision setting out how it will deal with unionist involvement in the new Irish state and how the north will be governed differently to other regions of Ireland? The second option rests with the SDLP and not Sinn Fein, no matter how many more mandates or votes the latter will garner.
For a party that has been the leading voice of nationalists here for 21 years now, Sinn Fein will still say that a vote for them on May 5th will bring change. If anyone has looked over the years, Sinn Fein has become a part of the status quo alongside the DUP and others who wish to keep deadlock in our politics, driving more and more young people off this island. Surely at this election, nationalists can at least give someone else a chance to have a go.
So which leader will it be serving as (Joint-) First Minister with the next leader of unionism – Michelle O’Neill or Nichola Mallon? For me it is clear, northern nationalism needs to begin change if it is ever to achieve a united Ireland and remove the obstacles in its way. Michelle O’Neill and Sinn Fein will not bring any new, fresh changes to the direction we will go upon. Nichola Mallon has been and still is a talented minister in this executive – just think what change she could bring to northern nationalism if her party leads the way forward? If she was to be one of the next (Joint-) First Ministers?