Sinn Féin takes pragmatic approach as it seeks victory in Northern Ireland

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We will “roll up our sleeves” and “deliver real change”. We are “progressive, modern, caring”. Sinn Féin’s pitch ahead of May’s Northern Ireland assembly elections could almost have come from a manifesto anywhere.

But it is significant as much for what it does not say as for what it does. Irish reunification — the fundamental goal of a party once discredited as the mouthpiece of the IRA nationalist paramilitary group — is reduced to a blink-and-you-miss-it image of the island of Ireland in campaign videos.

Instead, tackling the cost of living crisis and getting Northern Ireland’s paralysed power-sharing executive back to work after the pro-UK Democratic Unionist party torpedoed it in February are top of the agenda for the May 5 vote, when polls indicate Sinn Féin could for the first time defeat unionists a century after Ireland was partitioned.

“People are focused on the here and now and the need to get by,” said Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin president, as she presented the candidates. “We are very much in real time with the people.”

Sinn Féin’s relentless focus on grassroots voter concerns such as housing, health and jobs has propelled it to the top of polls and in sight of winning power on both sides of the border by 2025, when Irish elections are due.

Such a result in Northern Ireland would be a humiliation for the DUP, long the region’s largest political force. The posts of first and deputy first minister are equal, and until February were held by the DUP and Sinn Féin respectively. But the unionists have refused to commit to rejoining the executive if the nationalist party wins.

“There’s one problem party and one outlier in the whole of our political situation here and that is the DUP, who refuse to accept democracy,” Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s leader in the north and deputy first minister until February, said in an interview with the Financial Times.

“I just think it’s intolerable that . . . whilst people are worried about heating their homes and putting food on their table, fuel in their cars, the DUP are threatening to not go into an executive to actually allow us to deal with those things,” she added.

The DUP is also demanding the removal of post-Brexit trade checks, which it says undermine the region’s UK status. Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has made the issue a key electoral priority, while claiming that Sinn Féin remained focused on “divisive” plans for a vote on Irish reunification.

Recent polls put Sinn Féin up to seven points clear of the DUP, which are only about three points in front of the centrist Alliance party. But only just over a third of the region’s voters say they back a united Ireland. Only a slightly higher number say they would vote for reunification in 10-15 years’ time, even though McDonald says Ireland is living “the end days of partition” and a poll on Irish reunification could happen in five to 10 years.

Similarly, the DUP’s cherished causes — commitment to union with the UK and abolishing the post-Brexit trading arrangements known as the Northern Ireland protocol — ranked only fifth and sixth respectively among top election concerns among voters overall.

Agnès Maillot, a lecturer at Dublin City University and author of a new book on Sinn Féin, Rebels in Government, said that while its commitment to Irish unity was unwavering, “they’re trying to pull back a bit, to be seen as a nonsectarian party”.

A typically slick election ad hammers home the pitch for voters from the middle ground. John Finucane, an MP and Sinn Féin elections director, stressed that his mother grew up in a unionist area and his father a nationalist one, and that he had relatives who were in the Orange Order — a fervently pro-UK association known for its marching bands. He did not mention how his father Pat, a prominent lawyer, was shot in front of him in 1989 by loyalist paramilitaries in the family’s Belfast home.

Sinn Féin elections director John Finucane © Brian Lawless/PA

According to Maillot, Sinn Féin “will adapt to whatever the circumstances” in pursuit of its ultimate prize — a united Ireland. So as unionist parties oppose the Northern Ireland protocol, Sinn Féin repeatedly stresses the benefits it can bring.

In a business-friendly address to the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, O’Neill stressed that “the protocol is here to stay” and the region’s unique access to the EU single market for goods was eliciting “very strong interest in the US” and was “a key selling point”.

Because of Sinn Féin’s republicanism, its MPs refuse to take up their seats at Westminster, and a recent poll by Liverpool university found that two-thirds of people in the region believed politicians had not moved on from the divisions of the past.

In a reminder of the three decades of conflict known as the Troubles, petrol bombs were thrown at police by dissident republicans during a parade on Easter Monday. But Eoin Ó Broin, Sinn Féin’s housing spokesman in Dublin, dismissed any suggestion that the party had lingering paramilitary links. “There are no shadowy figures,” he told the FT.

Unlike some party figures, O’Neill, 45, was never in the IRA and belongs to the “Good Friday Agreement generation”, which came of age when the 1998 peace deal ended the conflict between republicans waging war to oust the UK and loyalists battling to remain British.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald, left, and Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland leader, campaigning in Belfast. The party is focusing on the cost of living crisis © Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

She said that the pact was now “under attack” from the DUP and rejected any move to reform mandatory power sharing, even though fierce divisions between both communities have repeatedly collapsed the Stormont executive.

A former local councillor and mayor, who had the first of her two children at the age of 16, O’Neill said she prefers to focus on issues people can relate to.

Sinn Féin has successfully lobbied to get leisure centres built and parks revamped by “being relentless”, according to Paul Maskey, the party’s MP for Belfast West. He said unemployment in his constituency was 15 per cent when he was elected in 2011. “Now it’s 5.3 per cent and I want it down lower.”

Brendan Hagan, a 61-year-old chef, praised Sinn Féin for “doing good things the last few years — keeping local areas clean, no vandalism . . . They’ll most definitely be first minister,” he said.

But some voters may take some convincing — polls show a high number remain undecided. As one former unionist voter, now plumping for the centrist Alliance party, put it: “Sinn Féin let everybody make all the mistakes — we need to be smarter.”

This article has been amended to show that John Finucane’s mother grew up in a unionist, not a nationalist, area and his father in a nationalist one.

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