Northern Ireland’s local elections and the continued rise of Sinn Féin
By Órla Scully, Account Executive
On the 18th of May, Sinn Féin are predicted to dominate polling in the Northern Ireland local government elections. One opinion poll facilitated by the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies for The Irish News posits that the party will win 29.8% of votes while rivals the Democratic Unionists will garner just 23%. Another by LucidTalk for The Belfast Telegraph suggested a narrower gap of 29% and 25% respectively. On the backdrop of political upheaval at Stormont, Sinn Féin’s projected success signals tough competition on polling day.
Support for the DUP has slipped by 1.1% since the previous local government elections four years ago, while support for nationalist Sinn Féin increased by an impressive 6.6% in the same timeframe. Coupled with Sinn Féin’s emergence as the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly in the 2022 General Election, the all-island party leader Mary Lou McDonald has rightly said that in another first, Sinn Féin has the opportunity to be the largest party in councils in Northern Ireland.
Shifting attitudes as DUP blocks Stormont Assembly
The rise of Sinn Féin may not come as a surprise. The change in support since the previous local elections in 2019 coincidentally mirror the outcome of the Assembly election results in 2022, where Sinn Féin saw their support increase by 1.1% with 29% of the vote, and support for the DUP decreased by 6.7% with 21.3%. The result spelled disaster for the political wellbeing of the state as the DUP, under the leadership of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, made the decision to boycott the Assembly and Executive in an effort to secure changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the main nationalist and unionist parties of Northern Ireland are obliged to engage in a power-sharing agreement, which requires both sides to agree upon a speaker before electing a government. The DUP refused to elect a speaker in protest of how post-Brexit trade checks may affect Northern Ireland, and so government at Stormont could not proceed. Northern Ireland is currently operating as a “zombified” state.
Despite pressure from London, Dublin, Washington DC and would-be political colleagues, and the securing of the much-contested Windsor Framework in place of the protocol, factions in the DUP and hard-line unionist rivals outside the party favour keeping the boycott that has paralysed Stormont.
The SDLP branded the move as “disgraceful.” Alliance suggested that the DUP forfeit their salaries until the vacuum in Northern Ireland is filled. Sinn Féin called it “shameful.”
If the DUP were to end their year-long abstention of power-sharing, deputy leader of Sinn Féin and First Minister-delegate, Michelle O’Neill, would be able to assume her role on behalf of her party for the first time at the Assembly – a role in which she wants to demonstrate her respect for unionists and their British identity as “a first minister for all.”
A time of great change in Northern Ireland
Since the end of the The Troubles a quarter century ago, Sinn Féin has transitioned from the desperate and demanding party to a seemingly responsible leader. Meanwhile, the DUP have stubbornly rendered the Assembly ungovernable. O’Neill has made it clear that it is one party that is blocking a new Executive from functioning, and that Sinn Féin are absolutely ready to get the Executive “up and running.” She called the local elections in Northern Ireland a chance for the public to “re-endorse” the outcome of last year’s general elections in [AP1] Sinn Féin’s manifesto launch. She said that their so-called re-endorsement would welcome positive leadership that would work for a better future for the state and make politics in Northern Ireland “work.” As always, that future includes securing a date for a border poll, which McDonald insists Dublin and London must “navigate and manage” – but willing the DUP to stop its protest and form a functional government will be the first step of many for Sinn Féin to achieve its agenda.
In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, with no structured government in place and with ever-shifting attitudes towards identities which once caused so much grief, O’Neill’s words ahead of her momentous attendance at the coronation of King Charles ring true:
“We are living in a time of great change. A time to respect our differing and equally legitimate aspirations, a time to firmly focus on the future and the opportunities that the next decade will bring.”
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