The Sinn Féin-DUP divide is about more than a united Ireland - it’s about what kind of society people want - Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly during a press conference at Stormont Castle, Belfast
First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly at Stormont Castle (Liam McBurney/PA)

The most striking poll in recent times was the LucidTalk/Sunday Times one last October which found that 57% of 18-24 year olds would vote for a united Ireland now – that’s to say without the arrangements and conditions being known.

Polls carry ‘health warnings’, like a margin of error of say plus or minus 3%. But when you get up to a figure of 57%, 3% either way doesn’t matter.

You can draw a number of conclusions from that poll and it should be said LucidTalk is usually pretty reliable. Certainly, reliable enough to scare the pants off Donaldson in February 2021 and propel him onto the streets alongside the loyalists he’s now abandoned on those same streets.

The poll shows an overwhelming majority of nationalists in the under-25 population, and the census figures show this majority will grow rapidly. The only segment in which unionists are in a majority is among the over-65s.

When you say the two blocs – SF and DUP – will continue to grow over the next few years, Alex, that seems correct. SF has almost finished cannibalising the SDLP and the DUP will do the same to the UUP, especially with Doug Beattie’s vacillating leadership. We’ll see how he’s doing in the next LucidTalk poll due soon.

DUP Leader Jeffrey Donaldson and UUP Leader Doug Beattie  , as Northern Ireland's devolved government is restored, Two years to the day since it collapsed. PICTURE:  COLM LENAGHAN
Executive at Stormont Will the DUP continue to cannibalise Doug Beattie's UUP? PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

However, the DUP can only grow to take over an ever-decreasing unionist vote. It looks like there will never be another unionist First Minister. You’re right though: the two blocs will wield the power in the assembly despite naïve bien pensant hopes of the ‘middle ground’. It’s the nature of an artificial ethno-political polity.

Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to assume, as the DUP does, that the future will be the same as the past. Yes, SF will concentrate on the all-island economy while the DUP cling to Britain’s fraying apron straps, but the all-island economy is the road to prosperity whereas clinging to Britain is the road to poverty. Business and investors know that. Invest NI knows that: that’s why they’re advertising heavily about the advantages of access to the EU’s single market, something they couldn’t do when the DUP was making a mess of economics.

The all-island economy is the road to prosperity whereas clinging to Britain is the road to poverty

Just watch SF making the party attractive to business. The DUP ‘economic strategy’ is stupid ‘ourselves alone’ – but SF’s isn’t and won’t appeal only to nationalism. Any DUP attempt to block economic development in the executive will go down very badly with business organisations.

Minister for the Economy Conor Murphy , as Northern Ireland's devolved government is restored, Two years to the day since it collapsed. PICTURE:  COLM LENAGHAN
Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy is Stormont's new economy minister. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

There’s another area for development where the DUP shoots itself in the foot, but SF embraces whole-heartedly, and that’s a modern pluralist society, which is why so many under-25s support SF.

There’s a suspicion that the DUP chose the education department because, apart from promoting the divisive and educationally damaging 11-plus, they want to oppose the NIO requirement for compulsory Relationship and Sexuality Education in schools dealing with abortion and reproductive health and rights. Young people, both unionist and nationalist, look across the border and see a modern, prosperous cosmopolitan society and deeply resent the DUP’s antediluvian attitudes being inflicted on them.

Pictures of the Northern Ireland Executive Ministers
The DUP's Paul Givan is the new education minister

There’s no sweet spot where both blocs can reach an accommodation, but it’s not as simple as UK versus united Ireland. The divide is also about what kind of society people want to live in – SF’s vision of the future in a 21st century society north and south, or the DUP’s efforts to live in the past?

If the DUP want to attract back the voters they’ve lost to Alliance since their Brexit fiasco then they need to soften their social policies. If they want to attract business then they need to drop the unattainable aim to overturn the north’s conditional status in the UK.

Oh, and don’t encourage them to hope for legislation from Sunak ‘to copper-fasten the union’. He’s got them back in Stormont and he’ll be gone by November.