Since the formation of the province following the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), Protestant unionists have run the show. That was the point of the exercise from the start.
In part, it was simple math. Protestants (who also tended to be loyalist/unionist) outnumbered Catholics (who tended to be nationalist) significantly in most areas.
In some places, they didn’t, as in Derry City/Londonderry, which was retained in the province for historical reasons outweighing the city’s Catholic majority.
There, a mix of gerrymandering and housing policy was employed to ensure the city government remained in unionist hands.
The formation of the power-sharing government at Stormont following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 gave more power, in the form of minority representation and consultation, to the nationalist community.
Still, leadership remained on the unionist side. Although power has shifted there, with the Democratic Unionists taking over dominance from the Ulster Unionists, the normality of unionist predominance was preserved.
The local council elections in 2019 created a stir, but the disturbance in the traditional order of things did not come from a shift between the confessional blocs. Instead, it was the impressive rise in the returns for the Alliance Party, boosting their total from 32 to 53.
A back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that this was exactly the number of seats lost by the two main unionist parties (DUP -7, UUP -13). Sinn Féin, the most prominent party in the nationalist communities, neither gained nor lost.
The actual shifts were undoubtedly more complicated. But at the time (and since then), the temptation to see the rise of the Alliance as an indication of community dealignment in the unionist community was hard to shake.
The election results indicated that unionist voters were growing tired of the one-dimensional politics on offer from the DUP and UUP and were shifting their votes to the avowedly centrist Alliance for economic reasons.
People who follow the region’s politics have been waiting for a dynamic like this to emerge for years. The only real surprise was that it hadn’t struck Sinn Féin as well.
Prognostications leading up to the local elections on 18 May generally touted a continuation of that same dynamic, with perhaps less leakage from the unionist side since the Windsor Agreements had put Brexit back on the table.
The elections did change the picture in the province, but not in the way that so many expected. The big winner was Sinn Féin, which picked up 39 seats.
While the Alliance also improved their position, gaining 14, the big losers were the UUP and the moderate nationalist SDLP, which lost 21 and 20 seats, respectively. The DUP held steady.
Change is in the air, but in what direction is still unclear.
In part, at least, the growth of Sinn Féin and the Alliance can be traced to their willingness to break with policies unpopular with voters.
This willingness starkly contrasts with the unionist insistence on sticking with sectarian politics despite the economic decline of the province since the 1960s.
Sinn Féin, in particular, has adopted a more flexible, community-oriented politics in Northern Ireland and the Republic, giving it ample opportunity to grow its base.
The party still retains its demand for a plebiscite leading to the formation of a 32-county republic by reuniting the six counties of Northern Ireland with the 26 of the Republic of Ireland.
However, Sinn Féin has embraced core concerns amongst its supporters, such as economic development and housing policy, in ways that its Troubles-era politics never did.
This is even truer in the case of the Alliance, a non-sectarian, centrist party seeking to attract voters from both communities with mild liberal politics far removed from its origins as a party of moderate unionism.
It is emblematic of the political shift that the Alliance represents that their first seat in the House of Commons was won in 2010 at the expense of Peter Robinson, at the time First Minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the DUP.
Ireland has historically resisted simple characterisation, much as the confessional divides have made reductionist explanations generally seem the most attractive.
Irrespective of exactly why the political shift happened, the fact that it has happened creates a number of interesting challenges on both sides of the Irish border.
Most prominently, the unionist parties were stalling for time after the Windsor Agreement, hoping hostility to the EU and residual Brexit obsession would rally voters.
The DUP has made it clear that it is unwilling to participate in local assembly with Sinn Féin as the leading party. This policy was on shaky ground before the election and now looks self-defeating.
Much as the unionist approach for most of the last century has been a consistently aggressive “No!”, the camp’s capacity to stonewall without British restraint has been dealt a blow.
Sinn Féin, by contrast, is in a dominant position, one made even more so by the favourable performance of the party in the Republic of Ireland.
Recent comments on the Northern Irish situation by Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin’s leader in the Republic, have confirmed the connection.
What is less clear is the path to a functioning regional executive if the unionist parties persist with their obstructionist tactics.
The (at least partial) resolution of the trade dispute with the EU means that the prospect for economic progress in Northern Ireland is present and within reach.
The longer the DUP and its allies try to stall the British government and the European Commission, the more difficult it will be to get the process moving.
The unionist community was only too happy to see repeat waves of emigration from Northern Ireland to the UK and the United States between the formation of the states and the early 2000s.
Their only hope is that they can wait out the shifts and realignments and once again control the province. Doing so would be a pyrrhic victory at best, but that’s better than nothing.
For those at the other end of the spectrum, waiting with bated breath for the long-hoped-for border poll, corresponding disappointment probably awaits.
Sinn Féin has managed to get where it is by moving (or seeming to move) away from the revolutionary politics that carried it through the Troubles.
True, the 32-county republic is still its #1 priority (at least in the sense of being the first item in the party’s policy document). But the costs would be enormous and difficult to bear.
West Germany was able to metabolise the Neue Bundesländer because it had a lot of money and because of German traditions of wage restraint.
The Irish Republic is in a completely different situation, having never fully recovered from the last decade’s financial crisis, and is subject to periodic cycles of real estate boom and bust.
Still, even if nothing happens in the short term, the signs that the situation is altering, perhaps in fundamental ways, are hard to avoid.
There is hope for a new direction in Northern Ireland, and that is seldom the case.
Photograph courtesy of Sinn Féin. Published under a Creative Commons license.