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Reunification of Ireland step closer after Sinn Féin victory

27th May 2022
Reunification of Ireland step closer after Sinn Féin victory

“Today ushers in a new era,” declared Vice President of Sinn Féin, Michelle O’Neill, after her party won national elections to the Stormont Assembly. It was the first time the Irish Republican Party had defeated pro-British unionists since Northern Ireland was partitioned from the rest of the country 100 years ago.

The victory in winning a majority of 27 of the 90 seats in the power-sharing legislature is historic. It is another watershed in what appears to be the inevitable reunification of Ireland.

The process of devolution in Britain was started by the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in 1998, just a year after he first came to office. It coincided with the landmark Good Friday Peace Accords, as limited power was transferred from London to local national assemblies, not only in Belfast but in Edinburgh and Cardiff too.

The declared aim was to safeguard the integrity of the UK. But as can be seen by the example in Scotland, the process is being overtaken by its momentum as independence is sought and seems set towards the break-up of the United Kingdom.

“There’s no doubt there are big fundamental questions being asked of the UK as a political entity right now,” Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, declared after witnessing Sinn Féin’s performance.

“They’re being asked here in Scotland, they’re being asked in Northern Ireland, they’re being asked in Wales, and I think we’re going to see some fundamental changes to UK governance in the years to come, and I am certain that one of those changes is going to be Scottish independence.”

The Good Friday Agreement was devised as an intricate model to share power after over 30 years of virtual civil war in Northern Ireland. It was always going to be a rump state after being hastily segregated as a last foothold in Ireland. It was never meant to last on demographics alone between two distinct communities divided by rival strands of Christianity between Protestants from England and the indigenous Catholic population.

Lessons do not seem to have been learned in other parts of the declining British Empire, as shown a couple of decades later by the tumultuous rush to divide the Indian subcontinent and the ensuing bloody conflicts.

Changing demographics within Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million residents were also not heeded. By the time of the 2011 census, the gap between the adversarial communities had closed to 48% Protestant and 45% Catholic.

 It had stood at 65% Protestants in 1940, almost twice the number of Catholics. The dilemma facing the British Government is that, under the Good Friday deal, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is required to call a referendum if it appears likely a majority want to return to a united Ireland. Although polls have shown most people still favour staying within the UK, Sinn Féin is proving how the tide is turning.

Like Scotland, Brexit is a major factor in creating more issues to cause antagonism between member countries of the UK.

Belfast and Edinburgh were effectively forced to leave the EU, even though there were clear majorities in each wanting to remain in the world’s biggest trading bloc. In addition, there is the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol, proposed and agreed upon by London, that sets up a virtual border across the Irish Sea. It was essentially due to the incompatibility of a hard Brexit with the Good Friday Agreement that the Johnson Government tried to run roughshod over.

Unionists, now in the minority at Stormont, are using the dilemma of not forming a power-sharing executive after losing the election.

It has even led the British Government to threaten to break international law by unilaterally changing the terms of the Protocol with the EU it had itself created as a sop.
Impasses are nothing new in Northern Ireland; such are the deep divisions that linger between the two major communities.

It is frequently revealed by the stop-start nature of the peace process. Much more tumult appears to lie ahead while doubts remain about the future structure of the UK and what form it may take. The inevitable break, as it seems more certain, is uncomfortably much nearer home than the previous decolonisation of England’s former empire.

 

(Photo Creative Commons)

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