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At some point it will become unmissable that on many issues Sinn Féin is on much same ground as DUP

Northern nationalism regards itself as left-wing, but on most issues its views are centre-right

The Republic’s small but sudden turn to the right was bound to have implications for Northern Ireland, even before Sinn Féin decided to get in front by withdrawing support for the hate speech Bill.

This right turn promises some of the North-South harmonisation that might have been expected when Leo Varadkar became Taoiseach, in the form of the centre-right centre of gravity common to everyday politics on both sides of the Border.

The clearest case of false consciousness on our shared Tory island is Northern nationalism’s belief it is a community of the left. All its parties are on the left, and most nationalist voters would presumably place themselves on the left if asked about their politics in general. But ask specific questions about taxation, immigration, welfare or crime and nationalist opinion is on the centre-right, indistinguishable from unionist opinion. The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, the authoritative source of this information, usually breaks its findings down by religious background rather than national identity but those categories can still largely be taken as proxies.

On social policy, nationalists were marginally more conservative than unionists until a decade ago, when they jumped to being marginally more liberal. They were presumably taking a lead from the abortion and same-sex marriage referendums in the Republic. As the Republic turns right, they may take a lead from it again.

Northern nationalists are unlikely to be looking to Simon Harris for leadership, however. There is a limit to how much praise the new taoiseach can win, North or South, merely for returning Fine Gael to its natural position – even if he succeeds.

Sinn Féin, by contrast, can keep inching towards the centre while making headlines and being applauded for its bravery every step of the way. This is how the peace process worked, to the dismay of political rivals.

As the party’s support has grown it has encompassed an awkward mix of urban liberals and rural conservatives, with a more left-leaning base in the Republic than in Northern Ireland. The controversy over fox hunting and hare coursing shows how difficult this is to manage. In 2021, Sinn Féin was ridiculed for opposing a ban on hunting in the North while promising one in the South. Larger issues of agriculture and the environment also invoke this complex set of differences.

Many of those differences would shrink if the party moved a little to the right in the Republic. It would become more like its average voter everywhere and the similarities between its voters would be emphasised. The end point could be close to Fianna Fáil’s natural position, but on an all-Ireland basis.

Sinn Féin can move right further and faster than is often realised. Its Stormont Ministers have presided over tax freezes, benefit cuts, reductions in public sector employment and the use of private finance for public services, including social housing.

Although nobody expects Sinn Féin to become socially illiberal, it can perform a swift retreat in the culture war. Seven months ago, it said giving cross-sex hormones to gender-confused children “needs to be part of normal healthcare”. This month, it sat silently through a Stormont discussion on the subject.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Sinn Féin ditched much of its international radicalism overnight. Last year, it declined to call for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador until forced to do so by grassroots pressure.

Immigration is not devolved so the party has never been tested on it in office but there is no reason to believe it would not adjust its position.

Rumblings in the Republic against an out-of-touch liberal establishment have an interesting translation to Northern Ireland, where Sinn Féin is the establishment. It has spent decades helping to build up the networks of quangos, lobby groups and community organisations that play an outsized role in Northern politics.

These are analogous to the NGOs blamed by some for the hate crime Bill and the failure of this month’s referendums. Sinn Féin will have to tread carefully around criticism of NGOs, as it risks being accused of running a similar system north of the Border.

Few voters will be upset over NGOs for long, however. A more serious impact on Northern Ireland is the discrediting of citizens’ assemblies, which had become the standard way to call for planning for a united Ireland without having to offer any plans. Now they are seen as dangerously flawed, a perception that is likely to endure. If this forces nationalist parties to offer plans, most will compete to do so on the centre-right: Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to show up Sinn Féin as hopelessly left-wing; Sinn Féin to show otherwise.

This may not bring about a united Ireland, but at some point it will become unmissable that on many issues, Sinn Féin is on much the same ground as the DUP.

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