Martin McGuinness, former leader of Sinn Féin, and Michelle O'Neil, current leaderSinn Féin

Just last year, in the 2016 devolved parliament elections, the number of votes separating the largest party – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – from Sinn Féin was around 40,000. Last week, it was 1200. What happened? Is this, as the moderate Ulster Unionist Party Leader Mike Nesbitt says in the wake of his resignation, a “rejection of post-sectarian politics”? Is it a return to the green-orange divide that has driven politics in Northern Ireland for decades and that it seemed we were just beginning to let go of? I happen to think it is exactly the opposite. Sinn Féin were the clear winners in this election not because of the will for a united but because of the people’s will for a united Northern Ireland.

Politics has never been normal in Northern Ireland. You never could have expected it to be, when the country literally had its borders drawn to ensure one community would always hold a democratic majority over the other. Somehow we have muddled through the last decade with a government that, until recently, looked stable and mildly effective. And so it was, until the events of the last 6 months unfolded before us.

For the benefit of any readers who have not followed the trail of intrigue in Northern Irish politics, I will summarise. The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme was set up in 2012 to encourage businesses and other parties to use renewable fuels. Unfortunately, the money paid for using the fuel was greater than the cost of the fuel itself and so individuals were able to make money simply by running their renewable-energy heaters. This is set to cost the NI taxpayer £500 million. Given that this is would mean a cost to each individual member of the electorate of around £400, you can perhaps see where the uproar is coming from. The scale of the scandal is immense and right at the heart lies Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP and former First Minister of Northern Ireland, who was in charge of the RHI scheme when it was first set up. She refused pressure from all sides – republican, unionist and neutral alike – to step aside for a public inquiry right up until Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned, triggering the election.

In any ‘normal’ circumstance, in face of blatant public opposition across the full cross-section of the NI population, one might have expected Foster to step down. She did no such thing. In fact, she buried her head in the sand, promising the election would be a “brutal” one and emphasising that unionists needed to come out and vote – and vote for the DUP – otherwise Sinn Féin would come to power. She compared Sinn Féin and the nationalist community to a “crocodile…coming back for more” and said that a vote for Mike Nesbitt (her main unionist opposition) was a vote for Sinn Féin. All semblance of normal, policy-based politics completely fell apart for the DUP, and they relied completely on the fear of Sinn Féin to avoid losing votes they rightly should have.

Ironically, it was precisely this strategy that caused the surge of Sinn Féin votes. I would like to emphasise one thing for the reader that is perhaps not clear to people outside Northern Ireland – the DUP are crazy. Time and again they have used the petition of concern – a peculiar power-sharing arrangement in the NI parliament – to veto bills on same-sex marriage, despite it receiving backing from all other major parties in government. They gave us Sammy Wilson, an environment minister who does not believe in climate change and after him Edwin Poots, who is a creationist. Following the election, Edwin Poots gave what has been referred to as a “meltdown” interview to the BBC in which all façades of tolerant, non-sectarian politics are lost. That £500 million lost to the public purse I mentioned? According to Poots, it’s fake news, spread by the BBC!

“This was the electorate punishing the DUP for not allowing Northern Ireland to have normal politics.”

It is safe to say that Sinn Féin, by comparison, are seen as quite rational. Now, some may argue they hold the craziest will of all – the will for a reunited Ireland – but aside from that, there is none of the devout religiousness that would seem distasteful to many voters in the rest of the United Kingdom. In the face of an election fought by the DUP on intensely sectarian grounds, many in the electorate turned to Sinn Féin.

The stakes of this election were higher than before and the turnout showed it – 10 whole points higher. This resulted in 20,000 extra votes for the DUP (showing that their strategy was effective, and that they have a core of intensely unionist voters who will vote for them no matter what), and 60,000 extra for Sinn Féin. So again, why the surge? This was the electorate punishing the DUP for not allowing Northern Ireland to have normal politics. For perhaps the first time in Northern Irish history, we had a vote that was driven on mainly non-sectarian grounds. The electorate knew that the only way to punish the DUP was to vote Sinn Féin. This was not a vote for a united Ireland nor was it a return to division in NI politics. It was a vote for common sense and a vote for an alternative to the madness and entrenchment of the DUP. Prior to this election, the Sinn Féin vote was falling and small parties expressing much of the same leftist economic sentiment without the rhetoric for a united Ireland were picking up steam. Far from a return to sectarian politics in Northern Ireland, I think we have just seen the first concrete evidence that there is a significant distaste for the hatred-driven, divisionary and parochial politics of Northern Ireland’s recent past

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