Irish Republican party Sinn Fein attained its highest ever share of the vote in the six counties that make up the Northern Ireland statelet still claimed by Britain, in emergency assembly elections on March 2.
Elections were called after power-sharing between Sinn Fein and the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) collapsed over a corruption scandal involving the public energy program. When DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster had refused to resign over her role in the scandal, Sinn Fein withdrew from the administration.
Sinn Fein has also been in conflict with the DUP over its support for British-pushed austerity measures and the lack of progress in equality for the Catholic minority. In particular the Protestant sectarianism and bigotry associated with the DUP and other unionist parties has caused widespread anger.
The issue of Irish unification, pushed by Sinn Fein, has also taken on greater significance in light of the British vote to withdraw from the European Union. There is anger that Northern Ireland, despite most voting to remain, would be pulled out of the EU — in which the Irish republic, that includes 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties, remains.
Marking the depth of public anger over these issues, voter turnout of almost 65% was 10 points higher than last year’s elections.
With counting still ongoing, The Guardian reported on March 3 that with 69 of the 90 seats determined, Sinn Fein was leading with 24 seats to the DUP’s 18, and was falling just short of winning the highest number of votes outright by polling 27.9% to the DUP’s 28.1%. It represents a swing of almost 4% to Sinn Fein (which won 28 seats last year), with a 1.1% swing against the DUP (which won 38).
Marking the significance of the vote, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams insisted: “There can be no return to the status quo.”
It was clear that Sinn Fein were th big benificiaries of public anger at this status quo. Irish Republican News said on March 3: “There have been key setbacks for the DUP and it still remains unclear if the party will retain the key threshold of 30 seats in order to retain their veto over political change.
“In one setback, the notoriously bigoted Nelson McCausland failed to hold his seat in north Belfast as the constituency looked that it might return a historic majority of three nationalist seats out of five.”
IRN noted a rise in the vote “cross-community” Alliance Party, which seeks to build a force without reference to the unions and republican, or Protestant and Catholic, divide rose significantly — up more than 2% to around 9%.
However, it said the vote for the anti-austerity socialist group People before Profit fell, despite it fielding more candidates. The group only held one of the two seats it won last year, with veteran Derry socialist Eamonn McCann failed to be re-elected
IRN said Justin McNulty, from the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), attributed the strong Sinn Fein vote to Foster’s bigotry and sectarianism, stating: “Her dismissive remarks had people out in droves,” he said.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood admitted Sinn Fein were the “net beneficiaries” of public outrage, noting: “The Sinn Fein vote has gone up very highly, which is a result of the overall context of this election, which has been pitched as a battle between the DUP and Sinn Fein.
“Those of us in the middle have been clearly squeezed.”
IRN said: “Another historic success for Sinn Fein was the success of Philip McGuigan in topping the poll in the unionist heartland of North Antrim, synonymous with the name of unionist firebrand and late DUP leader Ian Paisley.
“There was also a shock Sinn Fein success in South Down, a traditional bastion of the SDLP, where the party topped the poll as the SF vote climbed above that of the SDLP.
“Following this election, Sinn Fein and the DUP will have three weeks to resolve a wide gulf of differences and form a new administration. Otherwise, the London government has threatened to reimpose full, direct British rule.”
Sinn Fein has said it would seek to continue power-sharing, but not without a resolution of grievances.
Adams noted of the vote: “It is a vote for Irish unity, a vote for us together as a people.
“It is a vote and mandate that will have to be respected... for an end to the old status quo, for a new beginning.”