IN the conversations I have had since the seismic results of the local elections last week, one sentence stood out for me. A friend, and a significant political thinker, said that for him it was arguably a more important result than that of May last year. He was right.

The result last week was much more than an electoral “surge” by Sinn Féin. After partition it was local government that designed the day-to-day running of the sectarian Orange state. Councils gerrymandered, allocated housing (or didn’t), opened swings (or tied them up) and decided who was given equal citizenship (and who was not).

During the conflict and direct rule from Westminster, the councils were the space in which politics were played out. Where 'Ulster Says No' banners were erected. Where dog whistles and bullhorns were used to drown out voices in Irish and voices of challenge. Local councils decided that no play parks would be built in areas filled with the “wrong sort” of children. All of that has now changed, and changed utterly.

The irony is that it was a message of sharing and cooperation that gave Sinn Féin its enormous mandate. Being generous in politics is sometimes portrayed as difficult. We see from last week, however, that the rewards can be great from such courage. Accepting the invitation to attend the coronation played well with those searching for political leadership from their political representatives. Commitment to working for all resonated with people sick of the nihilistic cowardice of those only working for some.

Pádraig Donnelly was elected in East Belfast for Sinn Féin

Pádraig Donnelly was elected in East Belfast for Sinn Féin

But this mandate carries enormous responsibility too. Those new voters which give that vision of working for all momentum are not to be taken for granted. The immediate commitment by Sinn Féin to run councils by d’Hondt, even where they have the majority, is further evidence of that commitment to sharing working in practice. Not only are the swings untied in 2023, but everyone is also being invited to the park, being helped on to the swing and being given a push. 

This vote is not only about how councils like Mid-Ulster will be run. It is about how a new republic can be run. Every time Michelle O’Neill tells us that government, in council or in Stormont, will be inclusive and respectful of all, she is saying the new Ireland, the 32-county republic, will be inclusive and respectful. In the absence of the Irish Government putting in place constitutional planning measures, this political messaging is doing the work of building traditionally unionist families’ confidence in how they can expect to be treated in that new Ireland. But that in no way substitutes for Dublin's responsibilities.

Looking at the results through a partition or status quo eye is to be blind to what is happening. This is an all-island momentum for Sinn Féin with polls and votes that suggest the sky is the limit for what the all-island party can achieve. It is as much about a vision for a new Ireland as it is about the minutiae of policy. Last week’s votes were as much about how we can wrestle control of our own destiny away from a Westminster that cares nothing for our interests and build confidence in the model of a new Ireland which will be welcoming and adds swings for everyone.

Irrespective of whether they come to the park or want to play, their place is secure.