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A Sinn Fein win in Northern Ireland could bring big changes

What might happen to political power sharing — and calls for Irish reunification?

If pre-election polls are correct, Northern Ireland’s elections scheduled for May 5 will bring major change. For the first time in the 100-year history of Northern Ireland, a party devoted to uniting Ireland, north and south, will probably top the polls. This could mean the end of the power-sharing arrangement that has been central to Northern Ireland’s peace process.

Northern Ireland’s politics are built on power sharing

To understand the consequences, it’s first necessary to know how Northern Ireland works. A century ago, Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom when the rest of Ireland became independent. The result was decades of unrest and violence.

In 1998, the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement between the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland set out to defuse this conflict. It created the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive to divide power between the Unionists who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom — and who are mostly Protestant — and Nationalists who want Northern Ireland to unite with the Republic of Ireland and who are mostly Catholic.

People are talking up the prospects of a united Ireland. It’s easier said than done.

The Executive is run by a first minister and a deputy first minister. Under the peace agreement, one position must be filled by a Unionist party member and another by a Nationalist party member. Although the ministers have equal power, the first minister position goes to the party with the largest overall share of votes, giving a symbolic boost to the community it represents. For the past 24 years, a Unionist has occupied that role.

Sinn Fein is set to top the polls

The polls suggest that the Nationalist Sinn Fein party is about to break the trend. A Sinn Fein win would be a monumental event. Throughout Northern Ireland’s 30-year conflict — known euphemistically as “The Troubles” — the party was considered the political wing of the Irish Republic Army (IRA), which was responsible for many acts of political violence.

A Sinn Fein victory would also imply a dramatic defeat for political Unionism, at a time when many Unionists feel almost existential angst over the deal struck between the British government and the European Union to deliver Brexit. That deal, known as the Irish Protocol, keeps Northern Ireland in the E.U. customs framework but requires checks on goods traveling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and creates a sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom to avoid reestablishing a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

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The largest Unionist party for the past two decades, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), withdrew from the Executive in February in protest over the Protocol. Its (mis)handling of Brexit and internal party squabbles are part of why Sinn Fein is doing so well in the polls.

Under new legislation, the parties will have six months after the election to establish a working government. But if the DUP wins the second-largest share of votes, it’s not clear it would be willing to take the deputy first minister position. The DUP’s position on the Protocol — that it must be scrapped — caters to a narrow segment of supporters for whom this issue trumps all others.

The British government seems less committed to peace

How the British government handles these challenges will be very important for the future of Northern Ireland. From 2002 to 2007, when Nationalists and Unionists could not agree to govern together, the British government imposed direct rule from London. Still, it worked closely with the Irish government to coordinate their approach and find incentives that were balanced and mutually agreeable. This bilateralism was a central underpinning of the Good Friday Agreement and its subsequent successes.

From 2017 to 2020, when the parties were again at odds, Theresa May’s government was less engaged with the Irish government but avoided imposing direct rule, which is a red line for Irish Nationalists. After decades of Unionist rule, shared governance has been central to Nationalist support for the Good Friday Agreement. But Brexit has now strained relations between the British and Irish governments.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government does not seem interested in working bilaterally with the Irish with the kind of intensity that might get the parties back to the table. Instead, the U.K. government has repeatedly threatened unilateral action on the Protocol, despite ongoing negotiations with the E.U. to find practical solutions to its implementation — and the need for the U.K. and E.U. to work together in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Johnson’s government has also announced highly controversial legislation ending prosecutions and civil cases for actions committed during the Troubles, although it has shown some willingness to consult with other groups since then. The U.K. government refused to introduce legislation to recognize the Irish language as having equal status to English in Northern Ireland, despite having committed to doing so in 2020.

If the British impose direct rule in this context, it could appear to some that they have abandoned their core obligation to be a facilitator of peace in Northern Ireland. But the protracted absence of a functioning government could also undermine people’s faith in the peace accord.

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Without bilateral leadership from the U.K. and Ireland, the likely outcome is a stalemate. This will harm people in both communities as well as Northern Ireland’s burgeoning immigrant communities. Northern Ireland’s civil service can prevent a total collapse of services — it can fill potholes, deliver pensions and keep the health services running — but it can’t appropriate or redirect money to deal with challenges such as the coronavirus and runaway inflation.

A Sinn Fein win will also increase pressure for a referendum on Irish unification. The Good Friday Agreement says that the British government must call one when it appears a majority would support it. To date, opinion polls don’t indicate majority support for reunification — but continuing political stalemate in Northern Ireland might change that.

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Kimberly Cowell-Meyers is an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University and co-author with Carolyn Gallaher of “Parsing the Backstop: Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement in the Brexit Debates,” which appeared in the journal British Politics.

Carolyn Gallaher is a professor and senior associate dean in the School of International Service at American University, and author of “After the Peace: Loyalist Paramilitaries in Post-Accord Northern Ireland” (Cornell University Press, 2007).