Over-excited nationalists will say otherwise, but whatever happens on Thursday, the country will not unite in our lifetime

Published: 3 May 2020

If the pollsters have got it right, by the weekend, although unionists will almost certainly have scored more votes than nationalists in elections to the Northern Irish Assembly, Sinn Féin will be the biggest party, entitling it to nominate the First Minister. Its leader in the province, Michelle O’Neill, will intone the prepared speeches and soundbites she has been provided by HQ in Dublin to present the image of a peace-loving stateswoman, while keeping happy the small group of IRA veterans that the security forces north and south believe may still dictate Sinn Féin strategy.

This will be a joyous moment in the 800+ years of struggle against British oppression, she will no doubt explain, that will symbolise that nationalists are no longer confined to the back of the bus. And she will surely say saccharine things about reaching out to unionists while simultaneously praising the sacrifices made by IRA “patriots” who were killed or imprisoned trying to kill their Protestant neighbours.

If Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s Democratic Unionist Party has successfully fought off the non-sectarian Alliance party for second place, he will almost certainly feel obliged to refuse to commit himself to accepting the position of Deputy First Minister. This will mean weeks, possibly months of negotiation with the British and Irish governments, who need to face the fact that the Good Friday Agreement needs to be overhauled to, for example, allow for voluntary coalitions by relaxing the unionist/nationalist straitjacket that enshrines sectarianism.

But most of the media commentary will be about how a border poll is now imminent and a United Ireland inevitable. All of which is baloney.

First, Sinn Féin’s victory will be pyrrhic: it is profiting from the fact that the firm unionist vote is split more evenly than usual between the DUP, the Ulster Unionist party and the Traditional Unionist Voice party. Second, the First Minister can’t order a paperclip without the agreement of his or her deputy, so Sinn Féin will be no more powerful than it was before.

And, as the polls predict, both Sinn Féin and the DUP will have lost vote share once more to the middle ground — the constitutional agnostics and the relaxed nationalists and unionists who are sick of the tribalism that paralyses the Assembly and just want politicians to sort out the problems with the protocol and make Northern Ireland work. These respectable parties have no interest in working with Sinn Féin.

Here’s the reality. After months of Sinn Féin making often hysterical demands for a border poll, the reliable Institute of Irish Studies survey reported in early April that only 30 per cent would back the reunification of Ireland in a referendum, with 45.3 per cent voting against. Meanwhile, a respected poll of opinion in the south about voters’ priorities showed Northern Ireland matters so far down the list as to be almost out of sight. Since then, Sinn Féin has barely mentioned its constitutional aspirations at all, focusing instead on half-baked policies it thinks will get the youth vote. “I think people woke up this morning thinking about the cost-of-living crisis,” said O’Neill, heralding a torrent of impossible Sinn Féin crowd-pleasers about free money and ample housing.

Over-excited nationalists will say otherwise, but whatever happens on Thursday, there will be no united Ireland in our lifetime.

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