If Sinn Fein emerges with the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections this week, it will not be because the party has grown in popularity since the last vote in 2017. It will be because support for the DUP is at its lowest in more than two decades.
The DUP has suffered because of its failure to prevent Boris Johnson from agreeing the protocol that left Northern Ireland subject to EU single-market and customs rules. Sinn Fein, meanwhile, has benefited from Brexit and the Conservatives’ assertion of a muscular form of Unionism, both of which have added legitimacy to calls for a border poll on Irish unity.
Another, more overlooked reason for Sinn Fein’s relative buoyancy is that it has retained the support of younger voters despite being part of government for most of the time since 2007. The LucidTalk tracker poll puts the party on 26 per cent among all voters, six points ahead of the DUP – but 15 ahead among voters aged 18 to 24 and 11 ahead among those between 25 and 44.
Sinn Fein has even more support among young voters in the Republic, where it is the most popular party with all voters, on 33 per cent in the polls, rising to 46 per cent among those aged 18 to 24 and 45 per cent among those between 25 and 34. But while it is an all-island organisation led from Dublin, Sinn Fein’s image and appeal are quite distinct north and south of the border.
In the Republic, it is a left-wing populist party that has seen its support grow as the impact of Ireland’s housing crisis has spread beyond the young and poor to reach the middle--aged and middle-class. In the European parliament Sinn Fein sits with the anti-system left, including Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise.
The party promises more public spending on housing, health and social welfare and tax cuts for the poor, funded by tax rises for the most well-off. For many young voters, a vote for Sinn Fein is a vote to drive Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, the parties that have dominated Irish politics for a century, out of office. If they are associated with the incompetence and cronyism that left the country so vulnerable during the 2008 crash, Sinn Fein presents itself as standing for economic, political and societal change.
Although it is an overtly nationalist party as well as a populist one, Sinn Fein has never flirted with anti-immigrant policies. Its dominance in working-class, high-immigrant areas is one reason Ireland is almost alone in Europe in having no anti-immigrant party.
The party’s nationalism and the legacy of the IRA’s armed campaign were long viewed as impediments to its progress south of the border. But younger voters are enthusiastic about a united Ireland and many view questions about Sinn Fein’s record during the Troubles as politically motivated smears.
Sinn Fein cannot present itself as a populist insurgence north of the border, since it is a party of government under the Good Friday Agreement’s power-sharing arrangement. And unlike Alliance, and to some extent the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist party, it has no interest in breaking down traditional divisions. But its embrace of liberal positions on abortion and LGBT rights have protected it from the huge loss of younger support suffered by the DUP.
Neither a Sinn Fein first minister in Belfast nor a Sinn Fein government in Dublin can trigger a border poll. That can only be called by the Northern Ireland secretary if there is clear evidence of a majority in favour of a united Ireland. But the party can keep talking about it, set up units to plan for it and generally unsettle Unionists, many of whom are already feeling beleaguered.
If the DUP and the British government wanted to slow Sinn Fein’s progress, they would accept the result of this week’s election, restore the Executive, stop sabre-rattling about the protocol and focus on the cost-of-living increases that are hitting Northern Ireland hard.
The alternative is another crisis at Stormont, direct rule from London, worsening relations with Dublin and a possible trade war with the EU. All grist to Sinn Fein’s mill.