Sinn Féin’s path to all-island power just got a little smoother

One of the consequences of the Northern Ireland election is that it will ultimately be more difficult for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to maintain their positions if they refuse to enter government here with Sinn Féin.

The smoke is yet to clear from the Stormont election but the pattern across the Republic has been apparent for some time and is emerging again in today’s Independent/Ireland Thinks opinion poll.

The evidence suggests that Sinn Féin’s clearest route to power in the Republic is through one of the other two main parties, most likely first and foremost Fianna Fáil. Fine Gael is in the mood for a counterspell anyway.

Now it is being loudly argued that DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson cannot ignore democracy. The people have spoken. Donaldson knows this as well as anyone – he’s a Democrat – but there will still be some twists and turns before the outcome of the Northern Ireland election is felt.

The likely outcome is that Stormont will eventually bounce back, with Sinn Féin leader in the North Michelle O’Neill as First Minister. Ultimately.

Post-election, there is an opportunity at EU/UK level to better address trade unionists’ concerns over the Irish Sea border issue post-Brexit – but whether this can be done fully to the DUP’s satisfaction remains doubtful.

Additional accommodation may be possible. Sooner or later, however, Donaldson will have to show his hand. His position is complicated by the strength of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party in Northern Ireland. We can assume that the wheels of progress are turning slowly here.

Politicians are often fond of saying that an election is the real public opinion poll, especially when the poll results are not in their favour, but sometimes an accurate interpretation of election results can prove elusive.

While this weekend’s election in the North is historic in headlines, the outcome is also murky.

When the exaggeration wears off, that’s what we’re left with: The North is as polarized as ever, maybe even more so.

A likely analysis is that Sinn Féin’s vote increased slightly, largely at the expense of the SDLP, as Nationalists and Republicans struggled to boast of the right to the first ministerial title.

A solution to such Celtic versus Rangers-style gloating could be to create two first ministerial titles, as initially envisaged, as part of a broader overhaul of the Good Friday Agreement.

In any case, unionists’ voices were fragmented in the face of a perceived threat to the union from the sea borders, with the even more uncompromising TÜV denying the DUP a chance to regain leadership. It remains to be seen whether the surge in support for the alliance party will prove to be a mirage or a real dawn of a third way of doing business in Northern Ireland.

This is an important question. Because if a middle ground really develops in Northern Ireland, it will eventually lead to calls for changes to the Good Friday Agreement to allow for more traditional coalition building.

One thing seems certain, though: Sinn Féin’s rise to the leading party in the North, coupled with their poll lead in the Republic, which is also reflected in today’s poll, will make it difficult for the party to gain access to government here for much longer refuse .

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have often referred to the bespoke construct of the polity in Northern Ireland to defend their positions, refusing to enter government here with Sinn Féin.

And no doubt the two major ruling parties here will miss few opportunities to remind the DUP of their democratic commitments over the coming days, weeks and likely months.

Nowadays, however, this goes both ways. There’s an argument that Sinn Féin was the real winner of the last election here that I don’t particularly subscribe to. A ballot from an 80-year-old is just as relevant as that from an 18-year-old.

The FF/FG/Green government were initially unloved among themselves. For example, it’s no secret that Leo Varadkar would have preferred to put Fine Gael in opposition.

However, the unloved feeling has since softened. A majority in today’s opinion poll believes the government is doing a good job, which is perhaps the biggest surprise in the poll.

Against a backdrop of rising energy costs and concerns about the cost of living in general, with imminent mortgage rate hikes predicting even more difficult times, satisfaction with the government is relatively high.

However, it is undeniable that a large proportion of the under-35s in the republic still want to see Sinn Féin in government, and here too it would be unhealthy for democracy to deny this result for long.

More prosaically, it couldn’t hurt for Sinn Féin and its supporters to make some tough decisions in office that governments routinely have to make and for which they get little thanks.

Something like that will happen in the north soon. Sinn Féin is adept at representing each increase in support as a “wave.” Still, she staged her campaign in style, leading the poll in several constituencies. Particularly striking was the image of two other Sinn Féin women with Michelle O’Neill winning in the middle of Tyrone.

The party looks modern and relevant in Northern Ireland. She has increasingly accepted this appearance in the Republic. The odds of Sinn Féin leading the North and South governments within three years have just diminished.

But any political party can resist in populism and campaign in poetry—it must still rule in prose. There will be no hiding place for Sinn Féin after one term on both sides of the border at the same time. Sinn Féin’s path to all-island power just got a little smoother

Fry Electronics Team

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