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Shut up about the 'Sinn Féin victory'
[I recognise that I have a lot more subscribers at the moment than I did when I wrote my last post, and specifically more people who don’t actually know me personally; thus you might not have been expecting a snarky post about how the Northern Irish election is being reported on. I can only apologise.]
If you’ve at all been paying attention to your news apps in the last day or so, you might well have seen a version of this article:
Everywhere that’s reporting on the Northern Irish election has a similar take. The BBC is telling me that the election was a ‘Sinn Féin success’; the Guardian tells me they won a ‘resounding election victory’; the Times says that it’s a ‘shift’ that ‘overturned more than a century of Unionist and Protestant majorities’. Everyone agrees this result has given more power to Irish nationalists and takes us a step closer to a united Ireland.
This all sounds very impressive; Sinn Féin must have done pretty well! How well exactly?
Well, let’s look at some numbers. The last election to the Northern Ireland Assembly was held in 2017, and Sinn Féin won 27 seats out of 90 total—just under a third. This year, Sinn Féin won … 27 seats out of 90 total, just under a third. They made absolutely no gains and failed to make any progress.
If we look even wider, this election was no success story for Irish nationalism: Sinn Féin’s stagnation came at the same time that the smaller, more moderate nationalists of the Social Democratic and Labour Party lost four seats, and no other nationalist MLAs were elected from minor parties like Aontú.
Sinn Féin did win 1.1pp more in first preferences, which is not completely meaningless. But they failed to translate this small swing in vote share into any additional seats. While many people are writing about the possibility of a Sinn Féin First Minister, they have held the post of Deputy First Minister for nearly fifteen years, which (despite the name) is in fact materially identical in powers and responsibilities. And because of Northern Ireland’s strange ‘D’Hondt’ system for allocating ministerial positions, just being the largest party does not in itself give you more executive power. Sinn Féin didn’t have a bad night, but it was definitely not anything that could be described as a success.
What has changed is that Sinn Féin are now the largest party in the Assembly. But this is not because they made gains, but because the previous largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party, lost three seats. This was unexpected: I think most observers guessed they would do even worse.
In the last couple of years, the DUP have completely shat the bed. They made a misguided alliance with Boris Johnson over Brexit, on the understanding that he would ensure no separate customs arrangements for Northern Ireland; when it turned out that Johnson had absolutely no intention of upholding this understanding, agreeing to the Northern Ireland Protocol, the party descended into an internal civil war that both nationalists and unionists agree was a complete failure of governance. In January I gave it a ~30% chance that they wouldn’t even be the largest unionist party after the election; to put that into context, in 2017 the DUP had almost three times as many seats as their closest unionist competitors, so that was a 30% chance of an absolutely insane collapse.
Given this, losing just three seats was maybe the best possible outcome the DUP could have hoped for. And it’s also probably the outcome that results in the least changes in governance: the DUP–Sinn Féin coalition that has been in power in NI since 2007 (on and off, with and without the support of smaller parties) still hold a majority of seats, 52 out of 90. There’s no outright majority for the union with Britain, but this has been true since 2017 (a fact the Times journos clearly didn’t remember), and explicitly nationalist parties are still in the minority.
Indeed, the biggest shift in this election has been the rise of the Alliance party (who are neutral on the question of a united Ireland) into third place, gaining nine seats and more than doubling their representation. This big success happened at the same time as the moderate Ulster Unionist Party failed to gain from the DUP and actually lost a seat, while the SDLP had a terrible night. And the Green Party, the other main neutral party, have lost all their seats.
If you asked me to overlay a simple narrative on the results of the election, then, it might look a little something like this. The Alliance party have consolidated moderate support, decimating smaller moderate parties and encouraging moderate voters to look beyond the border question. Because of this, the UUP were unable to capitalise on the fall in DUP support, and so the DUP held on better than expected. The SDLP and the UUP also ran pretty bad campaigns nationally, which contributed to the DUP holding on and allowed Sinn Féin to stay pretty much where it was. As a matter of fact I don’t think this narrative is exactly right (the election results are complex and I need to pick over them in more detail), but it is certainly closer to the truth than ‘Sinn Féin triumph’.
So why, when Sinn Féin stagnated despite the failings of their biggest rival, have journalists outside Northern Ireland almost unanimously embraced the ‘Sinn Féin triumph’ narrative? Well, I have three hypotheses. The first is just that these journos were completely lazy and weren’t bothered to even check the results of the last election, just looking at whoever was at the top of the list this time around. This is almost certainly a big part of it.
The second hypothesis is that journalists were on autopilot, rehearsing what they wrote the last time Sinn Féin ran in an election, in the Republic of Ireland in 2020. That time, Sinn Féin really did do outstandingly well, and many international journalists wrote articles analysing their success and picking apart what it might mean for the future of politics on the island of Ireland. When those same journalists saw a new election result where Sinn Féin become the largest party, their brains just went on autopilot and began writing out the same narrative.
However, Irish politics is a very different beast from Northern Irish politics, and Sinn Féin’s victory in 2020 had very little to do with the issues at play in 2022; I wrote a little about that here. But it nonetheless suits Sinn Féin to pretend this isn’t true, and act as if their success in the south was related to their positions in the north. This is because the raison d’être of the party is to agitate for a united Ireland, so it’s awkward for them that success in the Republic came when they stopped talking so much about unification. And it’s doubly awkward now that they are stagnating in Northern Ireland, where they never stopped talking about unification. Sinn Féin would like to pretend that their success in the Republic was rooted in their nationalist politics, and that they’ve been successful up north for the same reason.
So this is my third hypothesis: journalists are writing about a Sinn Féin triumph because they’ve been told about a Sinn Féin triumph and they’ve not engaged critically with that narrative. Perhaps they are not even able to engage critically with it: journalists from outside Ireland are often laughably ill-equipped to think about Northern Irish politics, which is understandable for international observers but which is inexcusable when it comes to British journalists. I predict that such journalists have spoken to Sinn Féin representatives or press officers who told them this was a great night for Sinn Féin, and as a result they have written that it was a great night for Sinn Féin.
So, my closing message to all those journalists: when you write that Sinn Féin, or Irish nationalism, ‘triumphed’ or ‘succeeded’ or ‘emerged victorious’ from the election, you are essentially writing their press releases for them. Please, for the love of God, just apply a little bit of critical scrutiny to their narrative.