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What do Sinn Féin gains mean for Northern Ireland?

Written by Comment

Ireland’s general election results from 8 February 2020 rocked the Irish political landscape.

Sinn Féin (24.5%) broke the duopoly of Fianna Fáil (22.2%) and Fine Gael (20.9%), who up until then had dominated Irish politics. A key question hanging over the coming coalition negotiations will be Irish reunification. Sinn Féin is most strongly committed to seeing it happen, and their demand to hold a referendum on unification is central to any coalition partnership. 

The success of Sinn Féin is but one of several reasons that Irish reunification is becoming a real possibility

Brandon Lewis – the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – is responsible for a referendum on reunification
Image: Wikimedia Commons

However, the issue of Irish unification lies less with the Republic than with the people of Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998 to bring an end to the Troubles, states that a referendum on reunification can only be called by the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should they feel a majority of people in Northern Ireland support it. Whilst the success of Sinn Féin will give encouragement to those in the north supporting unification, it is but one of several reasons that Irish reunification is now becoming a real possibility. 

Brexit looms large in the debate over reunification. Although the UK has now left the EU after voting 52-48% to leave, 56% of Northern Ireland voted to remain. A majority of people feel that their European identity has been taken away from them; reunification provides a route back into Europe. Furthermore, predictions for the 2021 census point towards Catholics becoming the majority denomination for the first time. Natural decreases in the numbers of Protestant Unionists – who generally want Northern Ireland to stay part of the UK – and increases in Catholic Irish nationalists – who generally want Northern Ireland to leave the UK and rejoin the Republic – will make the prospect of Irish reunification all the more likely. 

Sinn Féin’s gains in the Republic are important to the prospects of Irish reunification, but remain just one aspect. Coupled with the Brexit vote and important demographic changes in Northern Ireland, the stage is set for the thirty-two counties of Ireland to become whole again. 

Last modified: 17th February 2020

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