There have been vocal and widespread calls for Irish reunification in the face of the British government’s determination to leave the European Union and a historic election result last week which has delivered unprecedented political strength for nationalism and Sinn Fein.
Speaking on the Falls Road in west Belfast, flanked by senior party representatives, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams pointed to the significance of the fact that the unionist majority at Stormont has been ended by last week’s election.
“The notion of a permanent or a perpetual unionist majority has been dismantled,” he declared.
For the first time, unionists do not have an overall majority at the Six County legislature, which dates back to the partition of Ireland. Sinn Fein came within one seat of drawing level with the DUP, and only 1,168 first preference votes separated the two parties.
The result means the DUP no longer has enough Assembly members to use their veto on political change without external support.
Mr Adams said that the election in the north had been “a watershed”.
“This has brought an end to the unionist majority in the Assembly,” he said. “It has also demolished any notion of a perpetual unionist majority in the north. This needs to be reflected in the approach of the unionist parties and the two governments.”
The increase in Sinn Fein vote came after the party successfully challenged unionist corruption, as well as the failure of unionists and the British government to deliver on talks deals dating back to 1998. On the back of an increased turnout, the party secured 27 seats, maintaining its numbers at Stormont in spite of the reduction of assembly seats, on an increase of almost 4 percentage points on last May’s result.
In a blog post, Mr Adams said there was now a need for political leaders “to co-operate with other progressives to create real changes in peoples’ lives based on everyone’s right to equality.” His full post is included below.
But its response to the election result, Republican Sinn Fein described it as a “setback” for republicans and the Irish working-class. Stormont remained a “fundamentally undemocratic” assembly “kept under the strict control of British imperialism, designed to give British rule in Ireland a democratic mantle”, they said.
Republican Network for Unity Chairperson Stephen McCourt, meanwhile called for a realignment of republicanism to challenge the Six County administration. “We need to begin a process of working together,” he said. “Factionalism and protesting in isolation is allowing Stormont to dominate the narrative.”
But the election has ignited strong new demands for Irish reunification. In the past week, three university student unions have voted overwhelmingly in favour of taking an official stance for Irish reunification. Mainstream media commentators have also rowed in behind the concept of Irish unity, motivated equally by Brexit and the election result.
Political analyst Siobhan Fenton, writing in the London Independent wrote: “A united Ireland is no longer hypothetical or absurd, but a credible option that must be considered seriously by both the Irish and British governments.”
Irish Times columnist Noel Whelan wrote: “We need to talk about Irish unity. We have been avoiding the conversation in the Republic for too long. The ground has shifted quite dramatically on the question in recent years. Last week’s Assembly Elections in Northern Ireland was a reflection of that new reality. The results of that election should now also serve as a lightbulb moment for nationalism south of the border.”
Economist and financial analyst Chris Johns pointed to the need to explain to northern unionists that “their economic future looks far rosier in the EU rather than outside, and the only way to achieve that is to accept Irish reunification”.
But there has also been an opposite reaction from unionist extremists. One English commentator, Melanie Phillips, writing for The Times of London, caused an angry backlash after she called for the 26 Counties to be reintegrated into the “authentic unitary nation” of the UK, asserting that Ireland has but “a tenuous claim to nationhood, having seceded from Britain as the Irish Free State only in 1922”.
Daniel Mulhall, Irish ambassador to Britain, pointed to Ireland’s 100 years since the proclamation of the Republic outside the GPO in Dublin. “Irish nationhood based on strong sense of identity, distinctive culture and shared values and interests. Nothing ‘tenuous’,” he wrote.