Will the N Ireland election pave the way for a united Ireland?

Sinn Féin is likely to be the largest party in Northern Ireland after the May 5 election – what does this mean for moves towards a united Ireland?

Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill election poster is seen against the backdrop of a republican mural in the nationalist area of west Belfast
Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill election poster is seen against the backdrop of a republican mural in the nationalist area of west Belfast April 25, 2022 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. [Charles McQuillan/Getty Images]

Sinn Féin will be the largest party in Northern Ireland after elections on May 5, according to every recent opinion poll.

This would be a significant symbolic breakthrough for the left-wing party, historically linked to the Irish Republican Army (IRA). It will confirm the political and demographic shifts since the 1998 “Good Friday” peace agreement, which has ended the once hegemonic Unionist dominance of Northern Ireland. The election is also likely to see further growth of the centre ground parties – those who do not have a fixed position on the constitutional question.

The effect on Irish unity will be indirect rather than immediate. Under the terms of the 1998 peace agreement, a united Ireland can only be created, if majorities vote for it in separate referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. All polls say a referendum will pass in the Republic, and while Brexit has seen a significant increase in support for Irish unity in Northern Ireland, most polls predict that a referendum would not pass there if called immediately, although the number of undecided voters may be as high as 25 percent. Those absolutely committed to Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom, are now a minority.

The elections to the regional assembly use a system of proportional representation by Single Transferable Vote, which facilitates competitive election performances by a large number of parties. In addition to Sinn Féin, two other parties committed to a united Ireland are likely to win seats. Those elected will also include three separate parties committed to UK membership, along with the centre ground Alliance Party and the Green Party. Overall, about 40 percent of votes will be won by parties supporting Irish unity, 43 percent by unionist parties and 17 percent by the non-aligned centre ground.

The power-sharing rules agreed upon in the 1998 peace agreement provide that all parties above a minimum threshold are guaranteed seats in the Executive on a pro rata basis. The two largest nationalist and unionist parties can however prevent an executive being formed by refusing to nominate a first or deputy first minister.

In the run-up to scheduled elections, the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), collapsed the power-sharing executive, via the resignation of its first minister, in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed between the UK government and the European Union, which sought to remove the threat of a hard border on the island, by keeping Northern Ireland in de facto terms within the EU single market.

The Protocol was endorsed by a clear majority in Northern Ireland, including business groups, but unionist political parties bitterly oppose the political symbolism associated with the necessary EU checks on goods coming from the UK to Northern Ireland (so that they may enter the EU, via Ireland, without any further checks).

A majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, but opinions reflected the wider political divide. Irish nationalists and the centre ground overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU, while 66 percent of unionist voters voted to leave. Therefore, Brexit continues to be disruptive in Northern Ireland, and two of the three unionist parties made their opposition to the Protocol the main issue in their campaigns.

If Sinn Féin wins the largest number of seats on May 5, it will be automatically entitled to the post of the first minister. This would be the first time an Irish nationalist ever held the post. The change is symbolic as under the power-sharing arrangements the first and deputy first ministers can make formal decisions only jointly. It is likely that the DUP will initially refuse to nominate a deputy – a decision which would collapse the power-sharing arrangements and see devolved power move back to London.

However, the devolution of power from London is very popular across all communities in Northern Ireland, and rule from London will also increase moves towards a united Ireland. All of this may see unionists rejoin the power-sharing government sometime in the autumn.

Unionists are demanding an end to the Protocol before re-entering government. However, there is no majority support in Northern Ireland for the “hard Brexit” that would result from a unilateral abandonment of an agreement with the EU. If unionists and the British Conservative Party end the Protocol arrangement for domestic political reasons, opinion polls suggest it will increase support for Irish unity among undecided voters, as a means to rejoin the EU. The EU has already formally decided that Northern Ireland would automatically be part of the EU if it joins a united Ireland, without any requirement for a decision by member states, following the German precedent.

The election result will also add momentum to Sinn Féin’s growth in the Republic of Ireland, where they already lead the parliamentary opposition, and where every recent opinion poll shows they are the most popular political party by a considerable margin. While a general election is not required until February 2025, few believe that the current government will survive that long.

If that election sees Sinn Féin come to power in Dublin as head of the sovereign Irish state, it will not trigger an immediate referendum on a united Ireland, as the power to call a referendum in Northern Ireland rests exclusively with the British government.

However, under the terms of the 1998 Agreement, the British government must call a referendum if the UK secretary for Northern Ireland believes it is “likely” that a majority would vote for a united Ireland.

A Sinn Féin government in Dublin will begin formal planning for a united Ireland. While there is now an active programme of research and debate within civil society and the universities, the current Irish government does not favour an early referendum, or indeed any formal planning – a position that is unpopular with the grassroots of the ruling Fianna Fáil party. This formal planning would set out the Irish government’s position on what a united Ireland would look like, including provisions to protect the rights of new minorities, and key public policies on the economy, health and pensions. Concrete proposals about these questions will be crucial in determining how the 20 percent in the centre ground in Northern Ireland will vote in a future referendum, and more detailed information may see support for unity from among the currently undecided.

If opinion polls start to show a likely majority for Irish unity, Sinn Féin will start to mobilise international pressure on the British government to use their prerogative to call a referendum in Northern Ireland. They are very likely to secure that support among the highly influential Irish American caucus in the US Congress, but they may also gain at least informal support in other EU member states.

The immediate aftermath of the May 5 election will see a focus on the symbolism of Sinn Féin’s position as the most popular party in Northern Ireland and on the challenges of forming a power-sharing government. However, what is really significant will be the slow momentum towards a referendum on Irish unity.

There is no majority today within Northern Ireland for Irish unity. But if unionist parties continue to move to their right, seeking to mobilise a hardline resistance to change, they will only succeed in driving the centre ground and more moderate Irish nationalists towards an active demand for a united Ireland inside the EU.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.