In 1998, the Good Friday agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland. A power-sharing system was established in its government, known as the Northern Irish Assembly or Stormont. It was agreed that the positions of First Minister and Deputy First Minister must be held by one unionist, who wished Northern Ireland to be in the UK, and one nationalist, who desired it to be part of the Republic of Ireland. Historically, unionists have dominated in Stormont.
That was until May, when Sinn Féin, a nationalist party, won the most seats in the assembly. This brings unionist (combining a number of parties) and nationalist members to almost equal numbers. Sinn Féin now have the right to nominate Northern Ireland’s First Minister, likely to be Michelle O’Neill, while the deputy is chosen by the runner-up, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Sinn Féin, meaning ‘We Ourselves’ in Irish, first emerged as a passive resistance movement against British rule in the early 20th century, and grew with nationalist sentiment. The 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty divided it: some agreed with a compromise where Ireland did not have full independence and the province of Ulster (most of which is now Northern Ireland) continued to be part of the UK. This was strongly opposed by others, however, and the two sides of Sinn Féin fought against each other in the Irish Civil War. The former won, and Sinn Féin split, with a new party called Fianna Fáil (‘Soldiers of Destiny’ in Irish) absorbing most of the membership.
In the late 1960s, Sinn Féin rose again by backing the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Organised to defend Catholics in Northern Ireland, the IRA ultimately wished to end British rule in the mainly Protestant region. However, internal arguments ensued again over the use of violence. This ambiguity meant that Sinn Féin, although a registered political party in Ireland, was banned in the UK until 1974.
From 1983 until 2018 the charismatic Gerry Adams led the party. He encouraged political and parliamentary tactics, adopting a strategy later known as “the ballot and the Armalite” (a kind of rifle). The UK’s tactics were hardly ethical, either, and a series of dramatic hunger strikes by its Irish republican prisoners boosted sympathy for Sinn Féin. Some believe Adams to have been complicit in many high-profile acts of violence committed by the IRA. But he was also crucial in ensuring its disarmament after the Good Friday agreement.
Today, Sinn Féin is not only prominent in the north, but big in the south too under leader Mary Lou McDonald. While the party still wants an end to the political partition of Ireland, other progressive issues are also emphasised, including health, women’s rights, the environment and the economy. Up until the late 1990s, the party condemned the trend towards European unification. But with Northern Ireland voting Remain in the Brexit referendum, the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union is proving persuasive in attracting new, young voters to Sinn Féin.