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There is no political party in Europe quite like Sinn Fein. It can speak fluently and flexibly in the language of give-and-take democracy, but within its members’ collective memory is a long, covert war against a powerful state, with all the calculation and resilience which that experience brings.

It has the sophistication and discipline to pursue several strategies at once, and to alternate quickly. Its analysis of shifting equilibria is shrewd and sharp. It can wield power and patronage, but it can also articulate the voice of the aggrieved outsider. While remaining open to all kinds of tactical cooperation, it challenges the legitimacy of both the democratic states in these islands.

And so far, Sinn Fein has been the big winner from the ferment created by Brexit, obviously in Northern Ireland and perhaps further afield. That is the clearest outcome from the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, in which it made impressive gains at the expense of its erstwhile coalition partners, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Amid sharpening sectarian rivalry, the DUP saw a one-point drop in its share of first-preference votes to 28.1% while Sinn Fein posted a four-point gain to 27.9%. Less than 1,200 votes now separate the two parties.

As Gerry Adams, the Sinn Finn president, triumphantly put it, this was a “watershed” ballot, showing that Northern Ireland no longer has a built-in majority favouring union with Britain. It was also, he added, a vote against Brexit, reflecting people’s anger at the idea of a hardening border. In particular it lent weight to Sinn Fein’s demand for Northern Ireland to have a special status, enjoying some features of EU membership.

Winner under any scenario 

Sinn Fein can reap rewards from any of the scenarios that will now unfold. Possibly a new power-sharing deal will be made, on conditions that better reflect its demands. Those include the departure of Arlene Foster, the DUP First Minister, pending investigation of a green-energy scam; a law to upgrade the Irish language; and most important, investigation of past killings on terms that reflect the Irish-republican view on history, which regards British security forces as the main wrongdoers.

Or, if no deal can be made, Northern Ireland will once again be administered by outsiders. If that means direct rule from London, by Tories bent on hard Brexit, the sense of grievance among Irish-republican voters will grow and Sinn Fein’s electoral fortunes will rise.

In a third possible outcome, which Sinn Fein is actively mooting, the Irish republic will have to play a more active role in co-managing Northern Ireland with Britain. In practice, the co-managers’ main task will be mitigating the effects of Brexit, which look pretty bad and are beyond the control of either London, Dublin or Belfast.

If all that comes about, it will appear to the world that a moderate, non-nationalist and politically vulnerable Dublin government has been manoeuvred by Sinn Fein into taking a more nationalist, all-Ireland position. That will boost Sinn Fein’s credibility in the Irish republic and make it harder for mainstream politicians in Dublin to treat the party as untouchable.        

Long-term trends 

What are the long-term trends at work here? Putting things as simply as possible, Brexit gave some Protestant and Unionist voters a tantalising illusion. It was the illusion that after years of seeing their community’s collective weight decline, they could claw back some old hegemony by harnessing British power to impose a strategic change on their neighbours. In a throwback to the world wars which loom large in Unionist memory, it seemed that Brexit Britain would stand taller in the world, and the Ulster-Protestant bond with splendidly-isolated Albion would be assured.

In a narrow sense, that expectation was fulfilled. As things stand, Northern Ireland will follow Great Britain out of the EU even though a local majority (56-44) voted to remain. And it has emerged that the Ulster Unionist contribution to the Brexit cause on the larger island was rather significant. The pro-Brexit campaign across the United Kingdom was financed, to the tune of £425,000 by funds that were processed through the DUP in order to avoid transparency rules.

But it was naive to imagine that Sinn Fein and its supporters, or anybody else in Northern Ireland’s nationalist camp, would roll over and let the Unionists reclaim ground. For decades, the “green” side in Northern Ireland’s tribal divide has been gaining in numbers, social status and confidence at the expense of the once-dominant “orange” camp. Brexit could do nothing to reverse that gradual change.

What Brexit did bring about was a sharpening of Irish-nationalist sentiment among voters who may be in no particular hurry to see their island formally reunited but loathe the thought of a reinforced border. Sinn Fein’s improved vote reflects that exacerbation.

Feeding the crocodile 

In a heavy-handed piece of electoral rhetoric, Foster warned against accommodating Sinn Fein by comparing it to feeding a crocodile who would always want more. Irish republican activists responded exuberantly by parading the streets of Belfast in crocodile outfits.

Still, if a crocodile is defined as a thick-skinned creature with a big appetite and an ability to digest almost any meat, then the analogy may have some force.

A decade ago, when the Irish republic held two referendums on Europe’s new constitutional arrangements, Sinn Fein raised its profile by campaigning hard for a “no” vote. Now it is making huge political capital from Brexit. That capital will only increase if the consequences of Brexit for the Irish republic start to look really dire, as will happen if relations between Britain and its European partners deteriorate across the board, and Ireland is caught in the middle.

The slogan “the worse it gets, the better it gets” was ascribed, perhaps apocryphally, to a Russian revolutionary. Whether or not the quote is accurate, Sinn Fein is a party that understands revolutionary logic. None of its immediate rivals has a similarly sophisticated grasp. And post-Brexit Ireland, north and south, could get a lot worse.

by Bruce Clark | 06.03.2017
Edited by Hugo Dixon


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