The triumph of the nationalists in Northern Ireland was all that Boris Johnson wanted to avoid. The Conservative Party lost historic votes and strongholds in last week’s local elections, tainted by investigations into the British prime minister for violating restrictions during the pandemic, and its Northern Irish allies in the Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, were overtaken by Sinn Féin. , the former political branch of the Irish Republican Army, the IRA, which until 1998 used arms to claim the reunification of Ireland.
Johnson faces a possible impeachment in the coming months. That is why he is trying to secure the support of the conservative leaders and regain popularity among the British: the bet is to relaunch the government and revive a management that will serve as his shield. The prime minister had promised an era of prosperity for the United Kingdom outside the European Union, but his pro-Brexit policy ended up destabilizing the country. For the first time in a hundred years, the Republican Catholics of Sinn Féin will head the Executive of Northern Ireland, a region dominated until now by the Protestant monarchists of the DUP, loyal to London.
In fact, the DUP left the government in early February in protest at the application of the Northern Ireland Protocol, an agreement between the UK and the EU to carry out customs controls in the Irish Sea. London withdrew from the bloc and no longer shares the same legislation, although the Good Friday peace agreement prevents the building of a physical border on the island of Ireland, that is, between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The unionists denounce that remaining under the orbit of the European common market is a de facto abandonment by Johnson.
“We are entering a very difficult negotiation process. The unionists are not going to form a government with Sinn Féin until there are solutions regarding the Protocol, ”says Nuala Finnegan, a professor at the National University of Ireland. However, she points out that “the vote hasn’t changed much” in the last election, rather the nationalists turned to Sinn Féin. The point, instead, is that “there are three Unionist parties and there has been a split in the Unionist vote, which has hurt the DUP.” She explains: “This division is due in part to the perspectives regarding the Protocol and social and economic changes.”
In Northern Ireland there are “Catholics and Protestants, and also nationalists and unionists, who do not always coincide”, highlights the academic. “We’re seeing a new generation of voters who don’t have the same interest in the unification issue as older generations. This changes the dynamic. In fact, the Alliance Party, which opts neither for the nationalists nor for the unionists, was the surprise of the election, ”she adds.
Younger people also do not identify with the ultra-conservative program of the DUP, which opposes both abortion and same-sex marriage, and are more concerned about the cost of living and lack of work – as in the rest of the United Kingdom. , which caused many votes that used to go to the unionist forces to migrate this time to the Alliance. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 55% of Northern Irish had chosen to remain in the EU. Johnson and the Unionists paid the price for shortages and blows to the local economy.
The DUP is increasingly isolated by its intransigence around the Protocol. Producers and traders support it because they see it as advantageous, and so does Sinn Féin, which sees the mechanism as an opportunity to get closer to the Republic of Ireland, in line with its unification plans. Perhaps that is why Johnson announced that the Protocol “is not sustainable” and promised to end it unilaterally, although he said that he would do so to unlock the formation of a government in Northern Ireland.
“The prospect has a very strong emotional touch for Unionists. The creation of the border in the sea produces frustration and anger, which prompted the campaign of the DUP and the other unionist parties. If the EU mounts an economic counterattack, it will be a risk. But the Protocol has become a symbol that has nothing to do with practical issues in the unionist imaginary, “says Finnegan.
The academic highlights that the prime minister “is in a very weak position and that does not help the situation in Northern Ireland.” “His party has lost a lot of seats in London and in the South, where he had very strong support. That may affect negotiations in Northern Ireland. In Scotland we are seeing another risk for the Union, not so urgent, ”she says, referring to the proposal by Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon to call a new independence referendum. Scotland had also voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU.
But any query on the independence of Britain’s constituent nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – needs authorization from the central government in London. The president of Sinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald, warned that she will promote a referendum for reunification, one of the main banners of the party. The problem is that the nationalists mainly want to demonstrate that they can manage well, which explains why they hid the referendum issue during the campaign, also partly because they are not sure they can win it.
Brexit has steered Northern Ireland in the direction of independent Ireland, although Dubliners think it is too early to talk about unification. “We have not started the debate. We don’t know what the social, economic, symbolic or linguistic implications are. On the other hand, as Sinn Féin’s vote has grown a lot in the Republic, it can be said that its voters have considered this issue, but it is the economic and social issues that have concerned them the most. And if Sinn Féin advances even further in the next elections, we are going to have to start discussing the issue seriously, ”says the Irish professor.
Opening that door implies the risk of igniting the confessional tensions of the past. “There are decades of ceasefire, the Catholic and Protestant communities have advanced and have other priorities. But there is always the risk – acknowledges Finnegan – because that emotion and the story itself are still there”. «