By: Daniel Zaydman
After Labour’s crushing defeat in the United Kingdom’s December general election, many began to write off the possibility of a resurgence of the left in the British Isles. On February 8th, however, the left made historic gains in Ireland. Sinn Féin, the long-time outsider party that once served as the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, won the most votes of any party in the country’s recent general election, sending shockwaves through an electoral system that has historically been ruled by the country’s two center-right parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Sinn Féin ran on a platform of reform for social welfare programs, most notably the country’s affordable housing programs as Ireland faces an alarming housing crisis. Perhaps the most important pillar of the party’s platform is reunification with Northern Ireland. As a Republican party, Sinn Féin has been pushing for a United Ireland since the party took its current form in 1970.
To understand the party’s goal of reunification, it is important to look back at the region’s tumultuous history in the past century. In the early 1920s Ireland split off from the UK, leading to a partition that created Northern Ireland, which remains a state within the UK today, while the Republic of Ireland gained full independence in 1949. The partition left the population of Northern Ireland with a split between unionists who identified as British and were mainly Protestant, and nationalists who identified as Irish and were mainly Catholic. Tensions existed between the two sides since Northern Ireland’s inception with violent escalations occurring in the 1960s, beginning a period known as the Troubles. The conflict set British troops fighting against Republican armed groups, the largest of being the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which sought to forcefully unify Ireland. The conflict spanned three decades, leaving nearly 3,600 dead and tens of thousands injured. Sinn Féin emerged during this time as the political force backing the IRA, attracting condemnation over its ties to violent extremism, even outright censorship of party members for many years. Tides turned in the 1990s, however, as the IRA announced a ceasefire that gave way for peace talks to formally ensue. In 1998, the Good Friday agreement was signed, creating a devolved government in Northern Ireland that would see shared power between unionists and nationalists.
While many saw the Good Friday agreement as the end to conflict between the unionists and nationalists, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union could very well reopen rifts. One of the key provisions of the Good Friday agreement is keeping an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which has both symbolic and economic significance for citizens on both sides. With the UK now out of the EU and Ireland still a member state, a “hard border” may return.
To maintain peace and keep economic relations stable, reunification is necessary. The potential re-establishment of a hard border poses a drastic threat to the safety and stability of the region, as a reignition of past disputes is almost certain to occur. The detrimental impact of a hard border on Northern Ireland’s economy cannot be understated, as this would interrupt the free flows of goods between the two countries; about 15 percent of all Northern Irish exports go to the Republic of Ireland. That number rises to 35 percent when exports to the rest of the UK are excluded. With global financial markets currently plummeting at rates not seen since the 2007-2008 financial crisis, further economic disruption could be immensely costly for the region.
There are several reasons why reunification is more likely to occur now than ever before. The first is a restoration of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland for the first time in three years. Sinn Féin currently holds one less seat than the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, with other Republican parties holding power in smaller numbers. The presence of a re-activated government will allow negotiations to ensue. More importantly though is the fact that a majority of the population in Northern Ireland voted ‘Remain’ in 2016 (by a proportion of 56 to 44 percent). Reunification with the Republic of Ireland would allow those in Northern Ireland to remain a part of the EU, and could unite unionists and nationalists under a single, broad European identity. With the gains made by Sinn Féin, Irish reunification looks likelier than ever. The party has made a border poll a pre-condition for entering government, leaving the fate of a United Ireland up to the people. It is imperative that Sinn Féin capitalize on its success and usher the Republic into a new era of reform and reunification.