Sinn Féin has not – so far, at the time of writing – mentioned a border poll since last week’s council election in Northern Ireland. No doubt it will return to the subject shortly, but the silence is striking while public debate and media reaction has mentioned little else.
It is also at odds with Sinn Féin’s manifesto, which gave “securing a date” for polls on both sides of the border as a “priority”.
Following last week’s historic and unexpected result, when the total unionist vote fell behind the nationalist vote for the first time, Sinn Féin’s statements have been confined to variations on “make politics work”, the party’s slogan during the campaign. All its focus is on the restoration of Stormont.
“We want to work together with others,” deputy leader Michelle O’Neill has repeated, as she pledges to be a “First Minister for all”. Even aspirational references to Irish unity have disappeared. There are only allusions to it in phrases such as “change is happening right across the island”.
Sinn Féin’s critics have accused it of finally catching up with its constitutional objective and not knowing what to say. There may be a degree of truth in that accusation, but for the most part a brief pause on border poll demands is a deliberate and intelligent strategy.
Almost everyone still believes a vote on Irish unity would be lost. A win is certainly not “likely”, the threshold set by the Good Friday Agreement. Although unionism’s decline appears irreversible, nationalism is barely growing. Its 40 per cent total vote last week is about two points better than usual but there is no prospect of it exceeding 50 per cent. So Northern Ireland remains in stalemate and change can only be secured by wooing the centre ground.
Sinn Féin’s message of making politics work is aimed primarily at nationalists, of course. They have responded to its positivity while enjoying the implied criticism of the DUP. But it also appeals to the centre ground, who will hear it as ‘making Northern Ireland work’ – a slogan used by unionists, Alliance and the SDLP.
Grandiose rhetoric about a supremacist, colonialist construct bears no relation to most people’s lives, even if they agree with the republican analysis of history
Republicans have long considered this a trap, embedding the constitutional status quo. That context changed once Sinn Féin became the largest party and has changed again with nationalism as the largest bloc. It is almost comic to consider the political reward awaiting O’Neill if she can find a way to normalise the term ‘Northern Ireland’.
Much public comment over the past week has asked whether a region designed to have a permanent unionist majority still has a reason to exist.
Sinn Féin has avoided the question, and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has warned against it. There is quite a difference between proclaiming a triumph over unionism and a triumph over Northern Ireland itself.
Grandiose rhetoric about a supremacist, colonialist construct bears no relation to most people’s lives, even if they agree with the republican analysis of history. Centrist voters and young people are most inclined to cite a Northern Irish identity. Across a much broader swathe of the population, Northern Ireland is simply home, with all the complexity that entails. Declaring this to be invalid because you have won would be a guaranteed way to lose.
That is not the only way Sinn Féin has decided not to frighten the centrist horses.
O’Neill was the only Stormont party leader to skip a pre-election interview with the BBC’s flagship political programme. Former finance minister Conor Murphy took her place, without explanation. This raised awkward questions about party management but it avoided a repeat of the question O’Neill fluffed last August when she said there was “no alternative” to IRA violence during the Troubles.
Sinn Féin has little electoral need to hide from this remark. An opinion poll last August found 69 per cent of nationalists agreed with it, including 85 per cent of Sinn Féin voters, thanks in no small part to determined revisionism by the republican movement. However, excusing the IRA dismays almost everyone else – something the party was so keen to avoid it was prepared to bench O’Neill during an election.
Although Sinn Féin is never going to disown the IRA, fewer public justifications of past violence would transform its image among centrist voters. The next big IRA funeral will be a key test for the party. Can there ever be a repeat of the 2020 Bobby Storey memorial parade, with its attendant ranks of whiteshirts?
Making Northern Ireland work remains a cost-free posture for Sinn Féin while the DUP is boycotting Stormont. Unionism can try springing the trap republicans have always feared by reviving devolution and hoping it embeds the status quo. The democratic pendulum might eventually swing back against Sinn Féin in office, although powersharing limits this mechanism. But it will be hard to outmanoeuvre a party that knew not to mention a border poll this week.