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Newton Emerson: Sinn Féin is playing the long game amid election that is its to lose

The party will opt to ‘make Northern Ireland work’ . . . for now

The DUP is slowly recovering in the polls ahead of May’s Assembly election but Sinn Féin is recovering faster, no doubt spurred by the attraction to nationalist voters of taking the first minister’s seat.

Jeffrey Donaldson's party had a realistic hope of closing the gap by winning back supporters and receiving transfers from the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).

In the most recent poll, published on Monday by Liverpool University and the Irish News, all hope is lost. Sinn Féin's seven-point lead is larger than the TUV's total support. On these numbers, Michelle O'Neill will be first minister if and when the next Northern Executive is formed. Nationalists would also have more seats, although unionism would have won more votes, due to marginal effects of the three-way split among unionist parties.

Holding the first minister’s role is often said to be of purely symbolic importance, as it is a joint and equal office with the deputy first minister. Many unionists are coping with the poll on those grounds.


Comfort blanket

A nationalist seat plurality would snatch that comfort blanket away. It would confer practical advantages for nationalism in the Assembly and Executive, and in theory strengthen the case to call for a Border poll. It also means O’Neill would be entitled to the post even if the DUP had not fiddled with rules in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.

This will be a moment of truth for unionism. Does it accept democracy, join the Executive and uphold its rhetoric of "making Northern Ireland work" – a phrase also used in recent elections by Alliance and the SDLP?

Sinn Féin can play a longer game around the paradox of superb polling for itself and terrible polling for its cause

Sinn Féin faces its own conundrum. Does it make Northern Ireland work, now it could claim credit for success or be blamed for failure?

The immediate answer is a resounding yes. The party’s election slogan, “make politics work”, is more than a rebuke to DUP obstruction.

At a Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce hustings event on Tuesday, O’Neill went further, saying people do not “wake up in the morning” thinking of constitutional change and her priorities are the cost of living crisis, health, economy and reforming the Executive.

United Ireland

Pressed by a reporter, she declined to agree a united Ireland is her “priority right now” and would only say “there will come a day when we will vote on the constitutional question”.

These are significant shifts in republican rhetoric, as was widely noted.

“Penny drops for Sinn Féin as unity push put on hold”, was the front page headline on the Belfast Telegraph.

Partly, Sinn Féin is playing it safe in the run up to an election that is its to lose. Avoiding graveside orations and striking responsible poses on powersharing will not frighten off any SDLP and Alliance transfers and could win over more. If the DUP continues its huff after the election, Sinn Féin will look all the better.

Planning for a united Ireland also puts people off: support for it drops to 25% once tax and healthcare questions are raised

But there is a great deal more going on. Republicans have always seen “making Northern Ireland work” as a unionist trap. The poll, which O’ Neill referred to in her Tuesday remarks, appears to confirm it.

It found 30 per cent would vote for a united Ireland “tomorrow” – a standard polling time frame to give comparable results. This would rise to just 33 per cent in “10 to 15 years”. Worse still for republicans, two-thirds of nationalists agreed with the statement “if devolved politics worked better people would focus less on the constitutional question”.

Planning for a united Ireland also puts people off: support for it drops to 25 per cent once tax and healthcare questions are raised.

One conclusion from this would be that Sinn Féin cannot win. The other would be that it has nothing to lose by taking the high road.

Making Northern Ireland work is how the Belfast Agreement is meant to work. As former taoiseach Brian Cowen put it: "Let's go on a journey and forget about the destination."

Sinn Féin has not forgotten the destination of course. A united Ireland is the first thing it thinks of in the morning and the last thing at night. Donaldson has warned that republicans will resume prioritising a “divisive Border poll” after the election. But Sinn Féin can play a longer game around the paradox of superb polling for itself and terrible polling for its cause.

Demonstrating willingness and positivity on government in the North is a timely signal to voters in the South, at least for those paying attention. It will certainly be noticed in Northern Ireland by Alliance supporters, non-voters and the rest of the decisive centre ground. Awkward questions about the cost of unification are deferred by focusing on Northern Ireland’s economy. Those questions could quietly fade if the Northern economy improves. In addition, in its own mind, Sinn Féin is Ireland. What is good for the party is always good for the cause.

Meanwhile, the DUP continues to make unionism fail. There is little sign of the penny dropping there yet.