Over a year ago, on March 2nd, 2017, Sinn Fein registered its best election result since the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Since then Northern Ireland has been in an undemocratic paralysis, as neither the DUP or Sinn Fein is able to agree to a government under the power-sharing mechanism that governs the constituent country. The result is rule imposed by the government at Westminster as endless rounds of talks fail to reach a resolution. More than ever change is coming to Northern Ireland. With a rapidly growing Catholic population, its traditionalism contrasting greatly with its southern neighbor, and the rise of separatist parties, a perfect storm of conditions is taking place in Northern Ireland.
The rise of Sinn Fein recently is not due to the independence issue. The 2017 election in NI was triggered by the resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness over a scandal related to a botched program that provided overly generous subsidies towards the use of renewable energy, resulting in a nearly half a billion pound loss to the Stormont. Sinn Fein led by a young new leader was able to capitalize on the incompetence of the Unionist government was able to gain nearly as large a share of the vote as the DUP. Likewise in the Irish republic, Sinn Fein has become a protest vote for people disenchanted with austerity measures. While its performance in elections is usually overestimated by polling, the Republic of Ireland branch of Sinn Fein has still seen substantial gains in support.
While Sinn Fein has recently brought in new blood into the leadership in both its NI and ROI branches, established parties in Northern Ireland have kept leaders who are political careerists and are scandal-ridden. This is all at the same time that a massive social change is occurring. In recent years, both gay marriage and abortion have been legalized in the traditionally Catholic republic of Ireland. Sinn Fein rather than appeal to a traditionalist Catholic point of view has decided to embrace the fast growing birth rate of the Catholic population and appeal to the young. In a liberalizing Ireland Sinn Fein has placed itself firmly in the left wing. Traditionalist left-wing parties have seen massive losses in recent elections, with the SDLP in NI losing many seats in the 2017 elections, and the Labour party in ROI being massively punished for its time in coalition government with the center-right. As a result the only real left wing alternative in Ireland is Sinn Fein.
In Scotland a similar situation occurred in the 2000s. The Labour party and Conservative parties lost support to the SNP by not embracing the changes occurring within the country and keeping in place stagnant political leaders and policies. The end result was a referendum where an 11% margin decided the fate of the Union. Conservative were able to make comeback in Scotland because they brought in new, young blood to the Scottish branch of the party in the form of Ruth Davidson. The Conservative party in Scotland moderated its policies and has been able to capture younger, progressive voters who otherwise would vote SNP due to it being the inherent change option.
To avoid further rises in support for independence and Sinn Fein, the DUP needs to modernize. It needs to take accountability for its scandals and promote young blood. Just like its neighbor, Northern Ireland is rapidly changing. While the rest of the world has embraced progressive change around abortion and gay marriage, NI remains firmly in the past. Combined with pressures around Brexit and border controls, there is strong chance that deadlock in the Stormont cannot be resolved soon, and voters looking for a change, will place their support in the hands of Sinn Fein, not because they support independence on traditional religious grounds, but as a protest vote against the incumbent government in Westminster and Belfast.
With the Conservative government being propped up by the DUP it is more important than ever that Conservatives pay attention to Northern Ireland. The full name of the Tory party after all is the Conservative and Unionist party. It is in every Conservative voter’s best interest that a strong DUP is able to present a modern and coherent vision for the Union, both for the survival of the current Conservative government at Westminster, and for the survival of the bond between NI and the UK. If the DUP is not able to present that vision, we can see a repeat of what happened in Scotland, with Sinn Fein gaining ever increasing clout and influence over the population, until there is enough support for independence referendums on both side of Ireland. To ensure the survival of the Union, the DUP must modernize its social stances and throw out corrupt leaders who are slowly leading it to electoral ruin.