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Sensemaker: Sinn Féin rising

Sensemaker: Sinn Féin rising

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Putin used his Victory Day speech to tell Russian soldiers they were fighting neo-Nazis in Ukraine, but did not declare war or victory (more below).
  • Ferdinand Marcos Jr, son of the late dictator of the Philippines, was poised to take power in Manila 40 years after his father was deposed by a revolt. 
  • Lisa Nandy declined to rule out running for leadership of the UK’s Labour Party if Sir Keir Starmer is forced to resign over “beergate”. 

Sinn Féin rising

Northern Ireland’s local elections last week were by far the most consequential of all those held in the UK. For the first time in the Stormont assembly’s 101-year history a nationalist party won most seats in a system designed to give unionists an inbuilt majority. 

The tectonic plates of Northern Irish politics are shifting. But Sinn Féin is still a long way from seeing a republican first minister atop a new executive, let alone a united Ireland. Obstacles include:

  • The Unionists. Under the “consociational” model of the Good Friday Agreement, the DUP – now surpassed as the largest party – must still nominate a deputy first minister for an executive to form. It’s understood the party won’t do this unless the Northern Ireland protocol, which mandates checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, is scrapped. On Sunday the DUP’s Jonathan Buckley put it simply: “Either the secretary of state [Brandon Lewis] wants an executive or a protocol – he can’t have both”. 
  • The protocol. To ensure power-sharing resumes in Northern Ireland, ministers in London are reportedly preparing to override parts of the very protocol that enabled Boris Johnson to claim he’d got Brexit done. But that would ratchet up tensions with the EU and could unravel the rest of the Withdrawal Agreement. 
  • London. A border poll isn’t on the cards for now because Brandon Lewis, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, is the only person who can grant one and he has categorically ruled it out. Even Sinn Féin has poured cold water on the idea in the immediate term. But in 2025, when elections in the Irish Republic promise similar success for the party, it might be harder for Lewis to deny that it is “likely” – the bar set by the Good Friday Agreement for a fresh poll – that a majority would vote for a united Ireland.

What happens now? Lewis is to hold talks with leaders today. Under recently amended legislation, the parties have:

  • 6 weeks to fill ministerial posts, from the day the assembly first meets (due this week). 
  • 18 more weeks after this point, should the first attempt fail: three subsequent six-week extensions are available. Should they all fail, fresh elections must be called within 12 further weeks. 

This could go on and on. These timeframes exist because this has happened before: in 2017 the assembly collapsed and left Stormont empty for three years – a record for the longest peacetime period spent without a government.  

Even with new legislation, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s gambit as DUP leader – to boycott Stormont until the protocol is dropped – paralyses the political process: fresh elections could leave deadlock after deadlock, and the region trapped in a cycle of bitter standoffs.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, is right that these elections show “big questions” left to answer about the union. But that doesn’t mean the union is doomed. Northern Ireland’s Alliance party – which doubled its number of seats – fought on a platform of moving politics beyond sectional divides and Sinn Féin focused far more on the cost of living than traditional unionist/nationalist divides. 

There is an obvious reason, apart from not wanting to alarm unionists: before this crisis or the pandemic, nearly 1 in 5 children in the region lived in absolute poverty. Fresh data this summer is expected to show this number rising even further. Stormont, embroiled once again in crisis, has urgent work to do.


How Starmer can lose – and win

Matthew d’Ancona

As the “Mr Rules” of Westminster, the Labour leader will be in an impossible position if fined over “beergate”. He should say in advance that he will go


All about Ping
Peter Ma used to be China’s quiet insurance king and a close and loyal friend to Mark Tucker, chairman of HSBC. He’s now lobbying for the break-up of Britain’s biggest bank, forcing the world to wonder if he’s channelling shareholder anxiety or Beijing’s bullying, and to contemplate the precedent an HSBC split would set for other banks hoping to stay in business in China. Ma owes HSBC a lot. In 2002 it bought a 10 per cent stake in Ping An, the state-backed insurance firm he founded, in a deal that included know-how transfer to help Ping An expand. It’s now a full-spectrum financial services behemoth and HSBC’s biggest shareholder. Ma tried to float the split idea internally, didn’t get much traction and so went public last week with a memo listing practical reasons for a break-up, among them a 30 per cent slide in returns to shareholders since Tucker took command in 2017. If that was Ma’s only concern, Bloomberg wouldn’t be fretting about the chances of “the most dramatic split in banking history”. The big question is whether any western banks are going to be able to operate under their own names in Xi’s Hong Kong / Shanghai financial superhub. If the answer’s no, is that it for globalisation? 


Putin blinks
Today’s speech in Red Square was a chance for Putin to declare war or victory. He didn’t take it. Declaring war would have enabled him to call up vast numbers of conscripts to reinforce the mainly “professional” force fighting so unprofessionally in eastern and southern Ukraine. Declaring victory might have signalled a winding down of hostilities, but would have rung hollow even in the heartland, where Russians watching the speech and military parade on smart TVs saw their schedules hacked. Instead of normal programming details they were shown a message: “On your hands is the blood of thousands of Ukrainians… TV and the authorities are lying.” Putin kept his remarks short, blamed Nato for what he continued to call a “special military operation” and thanked his troops in the Donbas for “defending the Motherland”. His position remains that he had no choice but to invade a neighbour that posed no threat to Russia. If the absence of victory is defeat, history may look back on 9 May as the day the defenders of the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol won the war.


China ghosts Russia 
It turns out American sanctions bite, even in China. Exports to Russia of Chinese laptops, smartphones and telecom base stations (for mobile networks) are down 40 per cent, two thirds and 98 per cent since the start of the war. Chinese drone exports to Russia are down too. Beijing’s official position is that US sanctions on Russia amount to “external coercion” when applied to Chinese firms, which shouldn’t submit to them. But they’re submitting all the same because the Russian market is tiny compared with the American one. Chinese laptop makers like Lenovo are especially vulnerable to the sanctions, which control their supply of chips. The world’s biggest chip-maker, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, is fully compliant with the sanctions, and a short flight by plane or missile across the Taiwan Strait from China.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Covid inequality
Delayed by the war in Ukraine, a global Covid response summit will finally be held at the White House on Thursday. But the US is bringing little to the table other than the table. Biden had asked Congress for a $5 billion chunk of a $22.5 billion emergency Covid funding plan to support global vaccination and treatment. But Senate Republicans are refusing approval unless it’s offset by cuts elsewhere. Global infections and deaths are at their lowest since the pandemic began but the risk of variants popping up in countries with low vaccination rates remains. Dr Bill Rodriguez, who runs the testing arm of the World Health Organisation’s ACT Accelerator, tells the NYT  to “expect a major new surge from Omicron or a new variant in the global south from June to September,” with the warning that if the surge comes “we are not going to be ready”. Testing too is still unfairly distributed, with only 20 per cent of the 5.7 billion tests taken globally conducted in low and middle-income nations. Proper testing, sequencing and isolating are key to effective containment. “Global test to treat” will be Biden’s rallying cry and he’s expected to ask wealthier nations to donate $2 billion to buy Covid treatments and $1 billion for oxygen supplies. He will be lucky to get it. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Teal Indies
Australians worried about climate change and fed up with politicians who do nothing about it are promoting their own candidates for parliamentary elections later this month. The candidates have become known as Teal Independents (green mixed with blue for their small-c conservatism) and could win enough seats to hold the balance of power if Scott Morrison’s Liberal-National coalition fails to win a new majority. Climate is forcing Australia to take a hard look at itself in the mirror. 2019’s catastrophic wildfires changed minds to the extent that three-quarters of Australians now think the benefits of taking action outweigh the costs, the FT reports. But in past elections in which progressives hoped the issue would cut through (2013 and 2019), it didn’t, and Australia has some of the rich world’s highest per capita emissions and least ambitious climate targets. Not unrelated: as in the US, deniers have an outsize influence on Australia’s media landscape.   

The week ahead


9/5 – Speech by defence secretary Ben Wallace at National Army Museum to coincide with Russia’s Victory Day parade; delegation of Belgian businesses led by Princess Astrid visits UK to strengthen trade ties, 10/5 – Queen’s Speech opens new parliamentary session and previews forthcoming legislation; Conservative MP Jamie Wallis charged with driving offence, 11/5 – All-Energy Exhibition and Conference in Glasgow; Society of Editors national conference; Wayne Couzens appears charged with indecent exposure offences committed before murdering Sarah Everard, 12/5 – Office for National Statistics to publish latest GDP figures; foreign secretary Liz Truss meets G7 counterparts in Germany; former world darts champion Ted Hankey appears for sentencing on sexual assault charge, 13/5 – ONS to release socio-economic analysis of vaccination rates in England, 14/5 – FA cup final matches at Wembley between Chelsea and Liverpool for the men, and Chelsea and Manchester City for the women 


9/5 – Presidential election in the Philippines; Pulitzer Prize winners and nominated finalists announced; World Hydrogen Summit in the Netherlands; Europe Day, 10/5 – Yoon Suk-yeol installed as South Korea’s new president; Joe Biden hosts Italian prime minister Mario Draghi, 11/5 – US senate vote on abortion rights following leaked Supreme Court draft opinion on Roe v Wade; UEFA congress in Vienna; European gas regulatory conference in Madrid, 12/5 – International Nurses Day on anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth; US hosts global summit on how to end Covid crisis; ministerial meeting in Denmark on implementation of Cop26 commitments; 13/5 – Swedish parliament expected to discuss joining Nato, 14/5 – 66th Eurovision Song Contest held in Italy, Sanja Matsuri festival celebrated in Japan, 15/5 – Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas; Blood moon total lunar eclipse visible in northern hemisphere 

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Lara Spirit

With additional reporting by Giles Whittell and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images

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