From Bullets to Ballot Box: A Political Earthquake Has Shaken Northern Ireland

A peace agreement signed almost 25 years ago still holds but social fissures among Protestants and Catholics have not disappeared.

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A political earthquake has shaken British-ruled Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein, a party which until a generation ago was the political voice of an armed separatist movement, the Irish Republican Party, has emerged as the winner in this week’s election.

This is the first time since Northern Ireland was created 101 years ago that a nationalist party – which emphasises an Irish rather than a British identity – has won an election. It’s a product, albeit an unexpected one, of a peace process which has ended decades of separatist violence and given all communities a stake in the democratic process.

And that’s why this election result will make headlines around the world. Northern Ireland is a small region with a population of under two million, but the peace deal and power-sharing agreement there is regarded as a shining example of how to resolve a long-running separatist conflict. It has been proposed as a model for Kashmir should there ever be the political will to pursue a negotiated end to the conflict. And it shaped the proposals put forward by Pakistan’s President Musharraf 15 years ago, which are widely seen as the most promising basis for peace in the Kashmir Valley.

Sinn Fein (it means ‘ourselves alone’ in the Irish language) was for many years the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which used bombs and bullets to try to force Britain out of Northern Ireland. The IRA has now renounced the use of violence and set aside its arsenals of weapons and explosives. Over the years, Sinn Fein has developed as a left-wing social democratic party which, while still seeking an end to British rule, campaigns primarily on social and welfare issues.

Many Sinn Fein politicians are known as ‘clean skins’ – too young to ever have been recruited into the ranks of the IRA. Its leader in Northern Ireland is Michelle O’Neill, who is 45 and was never an IRA member. “Today ushers in a new era,” she commented, describing the election outcome as a “defining moment for politics and for our people”.

Electoral officers empty a ballot box to count ballots during the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections at the Meadowbank Sports Arena, in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland, May 6, 2022. Photo: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

O’Neill is from a staunchly Republican family. Her father was in the IRA and served time in prison; a cousin was an IRA member who was shot and killed by British troops; another cousin was injured in an attack on a British army base.

To understand the enormity of Sinn Fein’s win, it’s necessary to explain a little of the tortuous history of Northern Ireland. When after a protracted and violent separatist campaign, the greater part of Ireland broke free from Britain in the 1920s, the north-east corner of the island of Ireland remained under British rule. That’s what is now known as Northern Ireland.

While the rest of Ireland had an overwhelming Catholic majority and a strong Irish identity, Northern Ireland had a Protestant majority who regarded themselves as British and threatened to rebel rather than be part of the Irish Republic. But Northern Ireland also had a large Catholic minority – currently a little over 40% of the population – who resented British rule.

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Northern Ireland’s Catholics were discriminated against in jobs and social housing and marginalised in a gerrymandered local electoral system. That sense of grievance fostered Catholic support for the IRA, which from 1969 pursued a well-organised armed struggle against British rule. More than 3,500 people – at least half of them civilians – were killed over 30 years of what are euphemistically termed ‘the Troubles’.

In the 1990s, the British and Irish governments worked together to seek a lasting solution to the Northern Ireland conflict. A new generation of IRA leaders, convinced that they could never win a military victory, were willing to pursue electoral politics if they could be sure they would be given a fair chance.

The power-sharing deal set down in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that established a system by which both Protestants and Catholics would have a role in government. It also involved a complete reshaping of the local police force, the disbanding and disarming of paramilitary groups and the release of prisoners. There have been many rocky moments in Northern Ireland since 1998, but the agreement still holds.

Sinn Fein’s victory this week – it took 29% of the first preference vote, while its main Protestant-supported challenger took 21% – does not mean that Northern Ireland will move away from being part of Britain. At least not yet. Sinn Fein has emerged as the largest party because it is seen as a modern and progressive political force. But it still wins virtually no support from among Northern Ireland’s Protestants. And divisions between three competing pro-British parties supported by the Protestant majority have contributed to Sinn Fein’s advance.

Under the power-sharing rules, Sinn Fein now has the right to nominate a first minister to head the devolved government in Northern Ireland. But that first minister cannot take office unless the runner-up party agrees to nominate a deputy first minister. Protestant Unionists have been in the driving seat in Northern Ireland for so long, they will not find it easy to see a Catholic nationalist in the top job.

Street sign with IRA graffiti reading “NO ENTRY” in Belfast. (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

When the peace agreement was signed almost quarter-of-a-century ago, no one expected the political wing of the IRA to be the main beneficiary. But Sinn Fein has convincingly demonstrated its commitment to democratic politics and its renunciation of violence. And the example of an armed separatist movement abandoning the gun and turning with success to electoral politics is one which deserves international attention.

For governments dealing with armed separatism, it offers a model for embracing the gunmen and their support base into the democratic process. And for the separatists, who must know that the best they can achieve is kick-starting negotiations, it offers a prospect of seeking redress through peaceful means.

As the Irish peace process demonstrates, to achieve a peace deal requires political courage and extraordinary qualities of leadership on all sides. It also means acquiescing in the electoral verdict, whether you like the outcome or not. For a region at peace, with the space for old wounds to heal, is by itself quite an achievement.

Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC India correspondent and reported from Northern Ireland as a BBC political correspondent. He has family in Northern Ireland too.