The collapsed assembly and crumbling public services have played into the party’s hands, giving it a majority in local government Northern Ireland was created to secure an in-built Protestant and unionist majority. When, in the early 1930s, the Ulster Unionist MP Basil Brooke told his constituents not to employ Catholics, Northern Ireland’s prime minister, James Craig, commented: “I would not ask him to withdraw one word he said.†How times change. Last Saturday, Sinn Féin became the largest party of local government in Northern Ireland. The party now has 144 seats across local councils, as opposed to the Democratic Unionist party’s 122. This comes on the back of last year’s local assembly election when Michelle O’Neill, deputy leader of Sinn Féin, became Northern Ireland’s first minister-designate. The nationalist vote outpolled the unionist vote for the first time. Now, Belfast city council, a traditional unionist stronghold, has only 17 unionist councillors out of 60 seats. Historic is the only word for it. The results reflect a fact: Northern Ireland is slowly changing beyond recognition. The census results last year show that Catholics outnumber Protestants for the first time. The younger generation are more likely to be from a Catholic, nationalist background and identify as Irish or Northern Irish, rather than British. The unionist support base is older and gradually shrinking. Crucially, there is a growing middle ground full of voters who identify as neither unionist nor nationalist. This new reality poses problems for unionism in the long term. As a political movement, it needs to broaden support and become more appealing to younger people. Even before the Brexit vote, unionists spoke about the need for reform and reaching across the divide to nationalists. There has been little progress. The DUP is currently boycotting the assembly to protest against the Northern Ireland protocol, a move that has only irritated nationalists and the middle ground more. It is the DUP, paradoxically, that has created the conditions that allowed Sinn Féin to thrive. The latter didn’t go into the local elections talking about a united Ireland, but focusing on the collapse of devolved government and devastating cuts to public services. To take just one example: discretionary support, a crisis loan made to the most vulnerable people, is facing an estimated 75% cut. Sinn Féin, which sold itself as a party for everyone in Northern Ireland, has positioned itself as the leading voice opposing the DUP’s boycott, thus siphoning off votes from the party that used to dominate nationalist politics, the Social Democratic and Labour party. The fact that Sinn Féin also bears responsibility for the collapse of the assembly in 2017 isn’t having an impact on its vote. Many nationalist voters suspect that the real reason for the DUP’s boycott of the assembly is simply O’Neill’s rise to first minister. Unionists, they say, can’t accept “second placeâ€; the old prejudices never die. The DUP only said it would accept holding the deputy first minister post, as opposed to the first minister post, after last year’s assembly election – that hasn’t happened yet and few nationalists believe it will. Voters are turning up to register their anger. Perspective, though, is needed. We aren’t heading for a united Ireland. Sinn Féin may be the largest party of local government, but unionism is still well represented across Northern Ireland. The DUP had a good election, consolidated its position, and didn’t lose a single seat. This is where the importance of the non-aligned Alliance party comes in – it doesn’t take a position on the constitutional question and last week it became the third largest of local government. Neither side in the constitutional debate has won it over yet. The side that wins any future border poll will be the side that promises a better future for Northern Ireland. That hope is sorely needed. This week, for instance, the East Belfast Gaelic Athletic Association club was involved in a security alert, having received threats and intimidation earlier this year. The team’s pitch is close to an integrated primary school and nursery, which had to close as the security operation unfolded. East Belfast GAA is a cross-community team. Its motto is “Togetherâ€, the words emblazoned on its crest in Irish, Ulster Scots and English, alongside the Harland and Wolff cranes. This is, seemingly, too much for Northern Ireland’s bigots. It is also a stark reminder of the dark, ugly legacy of our history. The purported attack has been condemned by politicians across the board. We are in a holding pattern that may not last. What happens if the middle ground decides that it is no longer willing to accept a status quo of devolution characterised by long periods of absent government and a declining quality of public services? Nationalists have an answer – a united Ireland – that demographic change may make easier to sell. But unionism? Without a positive, inclusive vision of the union and Northern Ireland, it faces oblivion. This article was amended on 25 May 2023. Harland and Wolff built the Titanic but not with its famous cranes, as an earlier version said.