Unionist unity, not Irish unity, could be the long-term consequence of the appointment of Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill as Martin McGuinness’s replacement as the party’s Stormont leader last week.
With a snap Stormont poll looming on March 2, O’Neill’s appointment is a tactical short-term stroke of genius which could well see Sinn Fein emerging as the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly – and thereby laying claim, on paper, to the coveted First Minister’s post.
Under the terms of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, the party with the largest number of MLAs is entitled to the First Minister’s post, the position which has been held by the DUP since 2007.
Mrs O’Neill, aged 40, was first elected to the Assembly for Mid Ulster in 2007 and has held ministerial posts in agriculture and health.
She is the latest in a number of parties to appoint a woman as their leader, including British Prime Minister Theresa May of the Tories, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party, and Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionists. Mrs O’Neill’s appointment also represents the latest step in Sinn Fein’s transformation from the apologist for the Provisional IRA to a democratic republican party.
Not only is she much younger than many in the current Sinn Fein hierarchy, who would be in their 60s, she also represents the so-called ‘draft dodger’ faction – namely those republican politicians who have no prior terrorist convictions or links to the IRA. When Sinn Fein emerged as a serious political movement following the 1981 republican hunger strike, the stereotype of candidate was for the most part, a male ex-prisoner.
While Mrs O’Neill has only a matter of weeks as Sinn Fein Stormont leader before the March poll, her politically squeaky clean image of the purely democratic republican will be a major factor in persuading Catholic middle class voters to remain, or defect to Sinn Fein.
Sinn Fein overtook the moderate nationalist SDLP by eating into the latter’s middle class Catholic voter base while at the same time retaining Sinn Fein’s support among its traditional working class republican heartlands.
Sinn Fein has also emerged unscathed from the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme debacle, which will reportedly cost the Northern Ireland taxpayer at least £490 million over the next 20 years.
If Sinn Fein can continue to eat into the SDLP vote, along with voter apathy and protest voting over RHI against the DUP in the pro-Union community, Mrs O’Neill has a very strong chance of edging out the DUP’s Mrs Foster as First Minister.
With Mrs O’Neill leading the Sinn Fein push, the DUP will have its political guns spiked if it campaigns on trying to keep a diehard republican with IRA links out of the First Minister’s post.
Ironically, if Mrs O’Neill does succeed Mrs Foster as Stormont First Minister, it could well be the political shock treatment which Unionism needs to bring about party political unity in its ranks – a unity not seen since the Unionist Coalition of the early 1970s.
A Sinn Fein First Minister could well lay the foundation stones for a merger of the DUP and the rival Ulster Unionists to form a single movement known as The Unionist Party – the name of the movement which dominated Stormont in the days of Unionist majority rule until 1972.
Likewise, an O’Neill-led Sinn Fein north of the border will be ideally placed to combat the expected move by Southern parties to contest elections in Northern Ireland. Fianna Fail is already organised and planning to fight future polls.
Mrs O’Neill could also be the political catalyst which persuades Fine Gael to enter a coalition government in Dublin’s Leinster House with Sinn Fein, thereby laying to rest Sinn Fein’s Southern stereotype of the party which was linked to the anti-Treaty IRA during the Irish Civil War of the 1920s.