By Javier Aja
Belfast, Northern Ireland, May 4 (EFE).- Sinn Féin sits on the cusp of a potentially historic election that could see it become the leading force in Northern Ireland for the first time since the country was established 100 years ago, a result that would bring the question of Irish reunification to forefront of the political agenda, the Northern Irish finance minister Conor Murphy tells Efe.
“The issue of the constitutional position in Ireland is always a huge issue, because our country was unfairly divided 100 years ago and we still suffer from the consequences of that division,” Murphy says following a campaign act with Michelle O’Neill, the vice president of the nationalist and republican party whose core cause is Irish reunification.
Polling ahead of Thursday’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections suggest Sinn Féin will be in a position to propose O’Neill as the country’s new first minister in the power-sharing government, a format enshrined by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, an international peace deal that brought a tentative end to decades of sectarian violence in the region.
Sinn Féin would have to rely on the Democratic Unionist Party accepting the post of deputy first minister should the party, which is diametrically opposed to Sinn Féin, finish second in the polls.
While both positions carry the same weight in the power-sharing executive, the DUP, which is ardently in favor of Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom, may find it hard to stomach the idea of losing an election to Sinn Féin for the first time.
Sinn Féin has its roots as the political wing of the now inactive Provisional Irish Republican Army, the lead belligerent on the predominantly Catholic nationalist side during the decades-long Northern Irish conflict with mainly Protestant paramilitaries and the British army during a period known as the Troubles, in nearly 3,500 people were killed, including 1,840 civilians, according to researcher Malcom Sutton.
“We as a party have always wanted to see reunification, the overwhelming majority of people in Ireland, across the island, want to see reunification,” Murphy, 59, says.
“What we want is the government in Dublin and the government in London to start planning in a structured way as to how reunification would take place.”
Like many of his generation, Murphy is a former member of the IRA who has long since laid down arms and entered the world of politics. In the early 1980s, he was sentenced to five years in prison for his IRA membership and possession of explosives.
A POLITICAL SHIFT
Polling in Northern Ireland is pointing to a dramatic shift in the political landscape as the once-dominant unionist parties cede ground to left-wing nationalist groups like Sinn Féin.
“The balance of power has changed here, the unionist majority which maintained the Union in the north has gone,” Murphy says.
Murphy does not want to put a date on it, but Mary Lou McDonald, the president of Sinn Féin, which operates in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland although abstains from taking its seats in the British parliament, has pledged a referendum on Irish reunification within the next decade.
Such a referendum, which would take place across the island of Ireland, would need a greenlight from the UK government, although the measure is written into law as part of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Northern Irish finance minister said he hoped a border poll would be organized in the opposite manner to the Brexit vote, which was rejected in Northern Ireland.
Although ideologically against Brexit, Sinn Féin’s standings have improved since the UK’s tricky withdrawal from the European Union.
The divorce brought with it the so-called Northern Irish Protocol, an agreement by London and Brussels to carry out customs checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in the Irish Sea as a way to avoid a return to a hard border in Ireland while preventing the EU from being flooded with unregulated UK products.
The measure has sparked protests in Northern Ireland’s unionist communities and within the DUP, which in February sank the power-sharing government and vowed not to participate in the next executive unless London and Brussels redrew the agreement.
For Murphy, the ball is in the court of the DUP’s ultraconservative leader Jeffrey Donaldson.