Over the weekend we will know the outcome of the general election, which has been described as one of the most historic and significant polls in decades.
Inn Fein – if the polls are right – are expected to win the most seats on Thursday, making Michelle O’Neill the first nationalist to hold the post of head of government since Northern Ireland was formed just over a century ago.
With the shared role of First and Deputy First Minister, it gives Sinn Féin no more power than whoever is elected second to serve at their side, but what does that mean symbolically?
Stacey Graham is a loyalist community worker who was born and raised on the Shankill Road in Belfast. She is passionate about preserving the union and proud of her loyalist roots stretching back to the Ulster Covenant.
What would a Republican in this top post mean to the place she calls home? A place where the symbols of loyalist identity adorn every gabled wall and lamppost in the flags and murals associated with the staunchly unionist working-class neighborhood.
“The First Minister and Deputy First Minister are a joint post, one cannot do anything without the other, but this is about the symbolism – people are concerned about this one distinction,” she says.
“Last year, when we weren’t that close to an election, a lot of people in those communities said, ‘We don’t give a damn if there’s a Sinn Féin First Minister.’ What matters to them is that these communities thrive and that we are represented in the right way by the right people.
“You think the politics of fear is long gone, but when you get closer to an election, whenever it becomes a very real possibility, you see that polarization again and people go back to their own camps.
“It could be massively destabilizing but I think unionists and loyalism need to take some responsibility too, I think we owe that look inward and not try to sell the benefits of the union.
“If you go to places like the Shankill or East Belfast where your identity, your union identity, is all you have, you will do absolutely anything to preserve that.
“When you live in poverty and deprivation, when you have this feeling of hopelessness, your culture and identity are everything.
“I feel like we’re on the precipice here of something that could be really volatile.
“This peace deal was supposed to bring prosperity to Northern Ireland, but the communities hardest hit by the conflict have seen no prosperity. So that contributes to that sense of isolation, and when you’re backed into a corner, what do you do?
dr David McCann is a lecturer and nationalist commentator. He urges caution and says people shouldn’t jump too quickly.
“It’s not written that Sinn Fein will be the largest party, the DUP is still competitive, so it’s not a certificate. If you take a look, before this election, they have more marginal vulnerable seats than the DUP.
“But all in all, if they hold on to places like North and West Belfast, then they’re well on their way to becoming the biggest party.”
The First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland are the joint Heads of Government here and have overall responsibility for running the Executive Office.
Despite the different titles for the two offices, the two positions are equal – the Deputy First Minister does not report to the First Minister. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, they were nominated by members of the assembly through an inter-community vote.
However, after the 2006 St Andrews Agreement it was changed so that the First Minister was nominated by the largest party overall and the Deputy First Minister was nominated by the party in the next largest community designation.
dr McCann says that while a Sinn Féin first minister is “hugely symbolic,” symbolism is all that comes with the office.
“The only change is that Michelle O’Neill gets to meet the Queen first and the First Minister gets to greet the visiting dignitaries,” he added.
“Except that the day after the election, Michelle doesn’t get any more power than she had as Deputy First Minister.
“But the symbolism is enormous, going back to 1921. The person who was always referred to as either Prime Minister or First Minister always came from the union side of the fence.
“So in 101 years it will be the first time a non-unionist has held the post of First Minister or Prime Minister.
“The bigger symbolism is when Michelle O’Neill is First Secretary, but also that there are more nationalists than unionists in the assembly.
“From 2016 you had Brexit and then the unionists lost their majority, then there was the Protocol, so you see outrage building upon outrage and that only feeds the sense of retreating union power.”
dr However, McCann warns Sinn Féin to exercise caution in how they react to taking on the post, should that be the case after Thursday’s election.
“Nationalists need to consider whether they can make progress on issues. Action breeds reaction and we saw that in 2017 when Arlene Foster thought she was smart by taking a strong stance against an Irish language law, well that had a reaction on the other side.
“You have to be careful not to do anything that fuels this resurgence in unionism or the idea that you can’t work with others. Remember, if nationalists get a border election, they have to win over parties like the Greens and the Alliance.”
Professor Pete Shirlow is Director of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool and co-author of Who Are ‘The People’? A Study in the Broad Identity of Ulster Loyalism.
He says the “bigger question” is why, if unions have an “electoral weight”, why is the DUP likely to come second?
“Between 2017 and 2019 we observed that many people who would have voted for the DUP but are socially liberal switched to the Alliance Party,” he said.
“Why didn’t the DUP go after these people instead of going after those who are angry at the protocol?
“Tomorrow, or even in the short or medium term, there will be no united Ireland.
“To me it’s the way unions are responding to being second because they’re not going to move back to first place by chasing after a traditional union vote because it’s just not there anymore.
“The ability to do the things they used to do, get people out on the streets, mass rallies etc – that’s moronic at this stage. It no longer has the power and capacity it once had.
“Most people are pro-union, content with the status quo, happy to get on with their lives.
“They don’t want people on the streets, they don’t want politics that’s all about anger, identity and frustration.
“I think what it will really do is send a message to the DUP that they cannot survive by chasing traditional union voting. They can only survive if they are relevant to the pro-union community.”
John McCallister, a former Ulster Unionist MLA and founding member of the failed NI21 experiment, said it should herald a period of union self-reflection.
“I think if it’s going to happen, we just have to get it over with,” he says of the possibility of a Sinn Féin first minister.
“Unionism was in a tailspin, most of it on its own.
“Fight for Brexit, vote for Brexit, secure a trust and supply deal and topple Theresa May for Boris Johnson and then wonder why things are going badly.
“It will be purely symbolic, it may be important for nationalists, but it was a mistake by Doug Beattie not to kill off that early in his lead.
“You have to build people up on that and give them time.
“It’s a shared office, equal, connected together, everything together. I see no problem with that, but unions will make it a problem.”
Mr McCallister recalls attending a meeting at Newcastle’s Orange Hall in July 2010 during the UUP leadership election. A question came from the room as to whether he would serve as Deputy First Minister.
“I said then that I would do it,” he recalls. “Two reasons: first, it’s fundamentally undemocratic, we’ve spent years saying we should respect the mandate and people’s rights, and second, because it’s a totally shared office.
“I remember Tom Elliot being stunned that the vast majority of South Down members supported that point of view.
“We met in an orange room, which was certainly not a bastion of liberalism.
“I was in favor of turning it into the Office of First Ministers, but the UUP then dated back to 1998 – the biggest designation.
“Until 2017 there was a seat between the largest party and the second largest.
“For me, the whole thing is just crazy to catch up.”
https://www.independent.ie/news/what-does-a-sinn-fein-first-minister-ultimately-mean-for-ni-41608967.html Ultimately, what does a Sinn Féin First Minister mean for NI?