Inching closer to a united Ireland

Published : 29 Apr 2022 07:40 PM | Updated : 29 Apr 2022 07:40 PM

First off, a lesson in phonetics, and how to pronounce Sinn Fein. Sinn isn’t like the word ‘sin’ as in wrongdoing. No, it’s pronounced ‘shin’ — as in front of the leg between the knee and the ankle. Shin.

And Fein? It’s pronounced just like the word ‘pain’ but with an ‘f’ sound. Shin fain. Sinn Fein.

If you want to feel like a real Irish person, don’t refer to them as Sinn Fein. Call them ‘shinners’.

This lesson in pronunciation is important because, in the coming weeks and months, you’re going to be hearing a lot more about the shinners. And here’s why.

On Thursday, May 5, the good people of England and Wales head to the polls to elect new local governments — city, county and town councils that are responsible for roads, bin collections, local facilities and local taxes.

The elections are also going to be an effective plebiscite on how Boris Johnson is doing as Prime Minister, with Conservative MPs waiting to see what happens before they make a push to get rid of him. Libations, lies and levity and all of that.

Good Friday peace accords

But in Northern Ireland, Thursday is when the good people there head to the polls to elect a new Northern Ireland Assembly — the regional parliament that is supposed to govern the British-ruled province under a power-sharing arrangement set out by the Good Friday peace accords signed a quarter of a century ago.

That agreement formally ended more than three decades of political and sectarian violence that claimed 3,600 lives and injured 36,000 more as dark forces on the nationalist — or republican — side tried to wrest the six counties into a united Ireland with the 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland, while equally sinister forces on the unionist — or loyalist — side tried to ensure it remained on an equal and sure footing with the rest of the United Kingdom, namely England Scotland and Wales.

But since Brexit, that footing is far from sure. Northern Ireland voted by a majority of 56 to 44 per cent to remain part of the European Union. The UK as a whole didn’t. That’s history. And in Northern Ireland, history matters. Geography too. And politics.

Since Brexit took effect, the reality in the province is that the Brexit deal Boris signed, whereby Northern Ireland remains under the EU’s customs rules and the rest of the UK sets its own rules, means that it has become more economically detached from the mainland across the Irish Sea.

Extra red tape

Hard core loyalists don’t like those diminished ties and extra red tape. But the reality is that there’s little appetite in London for picking another fight with the EU now — and certainly not while there’s a full-blown war underway on the bloc’s eastern border.

So right now, with those elections looming on Thursday, the unionist parties are in disarray.

Back to that Good Friday agreement. It set up a power-sharing government, meaning that the cabinet positions are shared between politicians of the two parties that top the polls.

Up to this point, the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) — you might remember them from the time when Theresa May was PM and needed their 10 MPs to support her to try and get Brexit done — were the top party in Northern Ireland. Were. Not anymore.

The shinners are the top dogs now heading into those elections on Thursday.

The DUP are out of step, quite frankly, with most people in Northern Ireland. They supported Brexit when most in the province didn’t. They opposed same-sex marriage and liberalised abortion rules when most in the province do.

Their party leadership is feuding and they seem unable to deal with the Brexit arrangements or make any real headway.

When there were shortages, they wanted the red tape lifted on checks across the Irish Sea. Shops and shoppers? They just looked to the Irish Republic and trucked goods in from there, across that open border that the Brexit deal ensured would stay open.

So, come Thursday, the shinners are on course to be the leading party — polls have then eight points ahead of the DUP.

Having Sinn Fein as the largest party would be very significant. It effectively means that a party that was intrinsically linked to the Irish Republican Army — yes, convicted terrorists and killers in the bad old days — would be leading one of the four governments of the UK.

A new possibility

In the Republic of Ireland to the south, the shinners are the main opposition party and, not too far in the future, it is possible to envisage the party running governments on both sides of the border — for however long that would remain.

Some Friday, when the votes are counted, there is every likelihood that the DUP will simply refuse to take their seats in the power-sharing government.

If that happens, then the province would likely return to direct rule from London with Dublin’s input.

Either way, for the first time since Northern Ireland was established when the Free State to the south was formed in 1920, it won’t be ruled by a party from the unionist segment.

And that is hugely significant.

Don’t forget that the Good Friday agreement also allows for a border poll — a single one-off referendum where the people of Northern Ireland decide on their future, as it is now, or in a united Ireland.

That border poll won’t happen in the immediate future. But it is getting closer. The shinners have always played the long game. They’ve waited 102 years to gain power in Northern Ireland. Within two years they could be in power in the Republic. And when the circumstances are right, it will happen.

Demographics too are on the shinners’ side. The last time votes were cast in an assembly election, there was just 12,000 between those who voted for unionist parties combined, and those who voted for nationalist parties combined. That could likely tip over come Thursday too.

Mick O'Reilly is Foreign Correspondent at Gulf News. Source: Gulf News