The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Sinn Fein victory in Northern Ireland could represent a sea change

The long path to power for supporters of a unified Ireland

A Sinn Fein election poster in West Belfast on May 3. Sinn Fein, a force in Irish republicanism on both sides of the Irish border, looks likely to become the largest party in the assembly, according to polls ahead of the May 5 local elections. (Peter Morrison/AP)
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When tourists travel to Belfast today, they often visit the historic sites of a prolonged conflict between Irish republicans who sought to reunite Ireland by force and the British Army and Northern Irish police. The “international wall” with political murals on Falls Road is among their first stops. Here, visitors are greeted at the entrance to the largest Nationalist neighborhoods in Belfast with: Tiocfaidh ar la — Irish for “Our day will come,” a slogan since the 1970s associated with the paramilitary group called the Provisional Irish Republican Army and its political wing, the republican party Sinn Fein.

Nearly a quarter of a century after the Good Friday Agreement, which aimed to end the conflict, Sinn Fein is expected to win parliamentary elections May 5. On Easter Sunday, Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald traveled from Dublin to Belfast to address a crowd of several thousand supporters. “In Northern Ireland, the past is over,” she proclaimed.

It was once unimaginable that Sinn Fein would hold power in Northern Ireland, where Catholics and republicans alike were long marginalized. But the party has slowly made inroads during and after the conflict. And now, with Brexit putting Irish unification more vividly on the agenda since 2016, Sinn Fein has become the strongest party on the island.

The party formed in 1905 and adopted a republican program after the failed 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. It won a landslide victory in the British general elections in December 1918 and formed an independent, revolutionary parliament in Dublin. This started the Irish War of Independence, which ended in 1921 with the partition of Ireland. As a result, the South became independent, while the northeastern part of the country remained as Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. In the aftermath of the partition, Sinn Fein vanished from electoral politics in both North and South.

In 1921, Northern Ireland was formed as a “Protestant state for a Protestant people,” as former prime minister James Craig once termed it. And for most of its history, republican, Catholic parties were only minor players in electoral politics. For almost a century, unionists — meaning those supporting the union with the United Kingdom rather than the Republic of Ireland — won a majority of seats in every election to Northern Ireland’s regional parliament or assembly.

Occasionally, Sinn Fein candidates contested elections, but if elected, they had a policy of abstaining from taking their seats in parliaments in Dublin, Belfast and Westminster as a form of protest. They considered these institutions illegitimate and vowed to recognize only an All-Ireland parliament. The policy reflected firm convictions but undermined their performance in these elections; Catholics and nationalists who went to the polls opted for alternatives to Sinn Fein.

This situation changed with the outbreak of the Northern Ireland conflict in 1968, which over the next three decades of war would leave almost 4,000 people dead. The conflict helped republican/nationalist parties gain a foothold in Northern Irish politics. In the 1970s, the reorganized Irish republican movement emerged as a mass social movement in the Catholic ghettos. It became possible to challenge the status quo and agitate for change in these spaces.

When Provisional IRA members imprisoned by U.K. authorities went on hunger strikes in 1980 and 1981, it sparked political organizing around republicanism in support of them in the Catholic ghettos of Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein helped spearhead this movement. The party then put up several hunger strikers as candidates in elections. The first one was Provisional IRA member Robert Sands, who won the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election. He died a short while later, and 100,000 attended his funeral in Belfast. Several other successful elections followed that year.

As a result, Sinn Fein adopted a new strategy of simultaneously trying to win the conflict in the streets and building electoral power. Republican Danny Morrison asked at the Sinn Fein Ard-Fheis (party conference) in 1981: “But will anyone object if, with a ballot paper in one hand and an Armalite [a U.S.-produced semiautomatic rifle] in the other, we take power in Ireland?” The new strategy of Armalite-and-Ballot-Box was born.

But Sinn Fein’s electoral rise in Northern Ireland remained slow, and it was even slower in the Republic of Ireland.

In April 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed by the British and Irish governments as well as eight political parties in Northern Ireland, and was approved by voters in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

To end the conflict, the agreement demanded that the Republic remove territorial claims to the whole island from its constitution, taking reunification off the table for the moment. For future reunification, no clear procedure was laid out, beyond a provision that any potential referendum must be called by the secretary of state, the British government official in Northern Ireland. Many observers expected the agreement to finally seal the constitutional status of Northern Ireland within the U.K. for good.

But Sinn Fein continued to participate in elections, and in 2003 the party polled beyond 20 percent, eventually taking over as the leading nationalist party. Yet it remained the junior partner in Northern Irish politics, consistently polling second behind the leading unionist party — until now.

Sinn Fein’s rise since the 1980s can be partially explained by voters’ anger at the austerity politics of the previous governments and a general left-turn of the Irish electorate. These factors positioned Sinn Fein as a European-style social democratic party with solid support from younger and urban voters.

In the Republic of Ireland, securing electoral success was even slower than in Northern Ireland. During the Northern Ireland conflict, the Dublin government aimed to distance the South from the experiences and radicalization of Catholics in Northern Ireland. The state imposed censorship on broadcast media, and prohibited Sinn Fein from TV appearances until the restrictions were discontinued in January 1994. The party won its first seat in 1997, in the first post-censorship election.

Its eventual breakthrough came in the aftermath of the world economic crisis of the late 2000s. In 2011, the party polled almost 10 percent, and nine years later, jumped to 24 percent, receiving the highest number of votes for the first time in 99 years.

Amid all this came Brexit, which Northern Ireland voted against in 2016. Since then, Sinn Fein — despite its European Union skepticism of earlier years — positioned itself as the anti-Brexit party in Northern Ireland. The party has promised a referendum on the unification of Ireland, a move that would bring the North back into the E.U. Polls suggest that support for a united Ireland has increased since 2020 when Britain left the E.U. bloc in what was called Brexit.

On May 5, Sinn Fein is expected to finish first in Northern Ireland for the first time. But this will raise new questions about how a possible referendum on unification could proceed.

All the 1998 Good Friday Agreement says is that “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland,” the secretary of state shall make an Order in Council enabling a broader poll. In other words, it left the decision in London’s hands.

While Sinn Fein’s historic electoral success in Northern Ireland may bring the province closer to unification with the Republic of Ireland and back into the E.U., Northern Irish Unionists have not yet accepted that their days are numbered.

The wait might suit Sinn Fein. While the Northern leader of Sinn Fein, Michelle O’Neill, told a conference in February that it is “time to prepare for a United Ireland,” she told newspapers earlier this month, “people are not waking up thinking about Irish unity.”

Indeed, data suggest that social issues, health and housing are on top of voters’ minds.

Sinn Fein’s days have come — just not yet.