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'Surprised, not shocked': What do the North's politicians make of the Sinn Féin surge?

Unionists and nationalists all agree that Sinn Féin is a powerful electoral force.

Sinn Féin and the DUP could soon have a very different relationship.
Sinn Féin and the DUP could soon have a very different relationship.
Image: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images

SINN FÉIN IN power in the North might be far from a novelty, but that doesn’t mean that the prospect of the party leading the Irish government hasn’t attracted attention there. 

For over two decades, Northern Irish politicians have watched the rise of Sinn Féin from pariah party to the main voice of nationalism. 

It was in 2001 that the Sinn Féin vote exceeded the SDLP’s for the first time in a Westminster general election – the first shift in the centre of power of nationalist politics in decades.

Now, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael know exactly how that feels. The parties have been pushed into second and third place by Sinn Féin’s share of the vote. 

The two parties – so used to dominating constituencies across the country – might well have been taken aback by the swell in support for Mary Lou McDonald’s party. 

But for some Northern Irish politicians, used to campaigning and canvassing alongside Sinn Féin activists, the party’s ability to attract voters has always been apparent.

Few people know the feeling better than the SDLP in the constituency of Newry and Armagh. Once a heartland for the party, the local MP from 1986 to 2005 was long-serving deputy leader (later Deputy First Minister) Seamus Mallon. 

Today, that same seat is held by Sinn Féin, while the party also holds three out of five Assembly seats in the area. 

To local MLA Justin McNulty, witnessing Sinn Féin’s success is hardly new. 

“They captured the mood,” he says. “I think it was a surprise to everyone.”

The leader of his own party, Colum Eastwood, gave his backing to Micheál Martin in the election

But McNulty, like many others, sees the vote for Sinn Féin as a rejection of century-long dominance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. 

McNulty credits Sinn Féin’s electoral machine for helping to deliver that success – a machine that encompasses a vast array of willing campaigners and a well-resourced campaign strategy. 

“They are very well oiled and put huge numbers on the ground and manage the messaging very powerfully.”

It’s the messaging, in particular, that local politicians stress when they talk about Sinn Féin. 

The party, McNulty says, has placed itself in a position where it “owns” the Irish language in the North. Sinn Féin, during the three years of the Stormont collapse, rallied around and backed the campaign for a standalone Irish Language Act

“No one else can touch it,” he says.

“They used the Irish language very effectively recently,” he adds. “And reaped the rewards.”

general-election-2019 Tom Elliott during the UK general election campaign. Source: Brian Lawless/PA Wire/PA Images

Another person familiar with electoral battles against Sinn Féin is Tom Elliott, the former MP and Ulster Unionist Party leader.

Most recently, he lost to Michelle Gildernew in the UK general election in Fermanagh & South Tyrone – a constituency notorious for races that often come down to a handful of votes. 

Sinn Féin, he says, “obviously pick subjects they think will resonate with the people, whether they’re deliverable or not”.  

“They have tapped into those social issues on this occasion, around housing and healthcare.”

It’s a strategy, Elliott says, he has often seen from the party.

“They do pick issues, they’ll always do that. It doesn’t matter who they’re campaigning against.”

It’s an analysis shared across the unionist community. On Monday, First Minister Arlene Foster called the election a “huge change”

“I think if you look at that exit poll it’s very clear that people were upset about domestic issues, they were obviously very upset about the housing crisis that there is in the Republic of Ireland, the health issues that were prominent and to the fore,” she said. 

Still, that doesn’t mean Northern Ireland’s politicians foresaw Sinn Féin’s surge. 

“To a certain degree, I was surprised, even picking those social issues,” Elliott says. 

“Their history and their links to the Provisional IRA, maybe some of the younger generation just didn’t see it in that way. Maybe they don’t remember – they didn’t live through those terrible and dreadful times.” 

‘Surprised, not shocked’

One of the earliest unionist responses was from DUP MLA Christopher Stalford.

Writing on Twitter on Sunday night, even before the extent of the Sinn Féin success was clear, he wrote: “Whomever forms the government in the Republic of Ireland, our job will be to work together in areas of mutual interest”.

“Let us hope they resolve the deadlock soon and a stable government is in place.”

Still, some unionists have concerns that go beyond the need for a stable government as more Brexit talks loom.

Billy Hutchinson, the leader of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party, thinks the result “says more about the two large parties than it does about Sinn Féin”. 

“It surprised me, but it didn’t shock me,” he says.

Hutchinson thinks Sinn Féin played the “social’ card”, focusing on issues like health and housing.

The vote, he argues, was not a mandate for a united Ireland but instead a reflection of people’s unhappiness at issues like health and housing. 

belfast-pride-festival Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and Progressive Unionist Party leader Billy Hutchinson at a talk in Belfast. Source: Liam McBurney/PA Archive/PA Images

And while he doesn’t think he’ll see a “united Ireland in my lifetime”, he is concerned about what a Sinn Féin government would mean for Northern Ireland. 

“[Since] way back in the 1990s, the Irish government has played a straight bat,” says Hutchinson. “They wanted to guarantee nationalists in Northern Ireland that they would work to make sure things are done equally.”

“Sinn Féin can’t do that,” he argues.

One common comparison that’s been raised in the last week is the position the DUP found itself in following the 2017 UK election, when Theresa May found herself relying on the party’s MPs to secure a majority. 

Back then, there were concerns that DUP leverage on the UK government would distort policy on Northern Ireland, giving the party significant – some argued improper – sway. 

Now, Sinn Féin finds itself in an even more enviable position in Ireland – with the prospect of Mary Lou McDonald as taoiseach no longer a practical impossibility. 

“In terms of the Good Friday Agreement, they weren’t in government. How can they be in government and represent parties in the North?” says Hutchinson. 

It’s a legitimate question – and one no one has answered so far. Nothing in the Good Friday Agreement rules out Sinn Féin being in government in the South, but it certainly adds an element of uncertainty to cross-border relations that all sides will have to navigate in the months to come. 

“If they took up foreign affairs, they wouldn’t be trusted on Northern Ireland,” Hutchinson says.

“They would be representing republicans, not nationalists.”

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