By Conor Tully
Correspondent, Undergraduate IR & Russian Student
On Thursday 2nd March, Northern Ireland went to the polls for the second time in less than a year. The Executive, having withstood considerable pressure in recent years over unresolved issues from the Troubles, had collapsed. A botched energy scheme set up by the first minister —the Democratic Unionist Party’s Arlene Foster—in her previous role as enterprise, resulted in a bill of approximately £490 million to the public purse. After the scheme’s flaws were made public, Foster refused to step aside. After the deputy first minister, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, resigned, the Northern Ireland secretary called an Assembly election, and public anger over Stormont’s collapse and the RHI scheme resulted in a 9.97 percent rise in turnout in the election, the first increase since the Good Friday Agreement referendum in 1998.
From last year, this election marked a drastic change for the main unionist parties. The DUP’s share of the vote fell by 1.1 percent leaving them with 28 out of 90 MLAs and only 1,168 first preference votes above Sinn Fein. When compared with their previous lead of 35,782 votes last time around, it is clear that the DUP and unionism in general will be deeply concerned by this result. Changes announced back in 2014 meant that the overall number of seats was reduced from 108 to 90. This, combined with the nature of the single transferable vote system, makes it difficult to compare results from 2016 and 2017. However, rough calculations based on the DUP winning 38 seats in 2016 show that the DUP have notionally lost five seats.
Crucially, the DUP have fallen below the 30 MLA threshold needed to trigger a petition of concern. This mechanism from the Good Friday Agreement has—up until now—allowed the party to effectively veto legislation on areas such as same sex marriage, despite a majority of MLAs supporting the move. However, the TUV’s MLA and a UUP MLA have stated that they would sign a DUP petition to block same-sex marriage in defiance of the UUP’s manifesto commitment to limit the circumstances in which a petition can be used.
As a whole, the election brought large success for Sinn Fein and their new Northern leader Michelle O’Neill who replaced McGuinness after he stepped down for health reasons. After losing a seat last year, the party decreased the DUP’s lead down to one seat, the closest gap ever under devolution. The significance of the end of a unionist majority at Stormont is not lost on the party. Sinn Fein’s leadership will be pleased with their decision to force an election, as they will now have a much stronger hand in the negotiations.
Foster’s refusal to stand down was undoubtedly part of the reason for the notable increase in turnout. Many voters, angry at the DUP, will have chosen Sinn Fein candidates as the best way of damaging the DUP’s chances. Foster’s attempt to mobilise loyalist voters in her opposition to an Irish Language Act backfired by antagonising nationalists and encouraging them to vote. At a press conference, Foster argued against giving concessions to Sinn Fein, stating: “If you feed a crocodile, they’re going to keep coming back and looking for more.” Sinn Fein activists responded by turning up to vote in crocodile costumes.
Nationalist fears that a hard border could be introduced between Northern Ireland and the Republic after the UK leaves the EU are another possible factor leading to the party’s increased support. Currently, travel between the two jurisdictions takes place without restrictions under the Common Travel Area which predates both countries’ EU membership. Although the London and Dublin governments have vowed to make this a priority in Brexit negotiations, evidence presented to the NI Affairs Committee at Westminster argued that any future arrangement must be approved by the rest of the EU. These fears harmed the pro-Brexit People Before Profit Alliance.
On the other hand, for the DUP’s main rivals, the Ulster Unionist Party, this election was disastrous. Their strategy of presenting themselves as the alternative to the scandal prone DUP did not resonate well enough with voters. Their leader, Mike Nesbitt, had attempted to improve his party’s position by saying that he would give his second preference vote to his nationalist partner in the official opposition, the SDLP, as opposed to rival unionist parties.
Although this unprecedented move did not lead to a revolution, a closer analysis of transfers does reveal a change in voting habits. In some areas there is a history of unionists tactically voting for the SDLP in order to keep Sinn Fein from getting elected, primarily because of Sinn Fein’s links to the Provisional IRA. However, when unionists are in contention to win the seat, they traditionally vote along tribal lines. Interestingly, Nesbitt’s message got through in two key constituencies and prevented the DUP from taking seats. A large number of UUP transfers, combined with a split DUP vote, helped an SDLP candidate get elected in Lagan Valley. Similarly, in Fermanagh and South Tyrone SDLP transfers helped get a UUP candidate elected. These two seats made the difference in ending the DUP’s ability to use the petition of concern singlehandedly but were not enough to challenge the DUP’s position as unionism’s largest party. After failing to make a marginal increase in votes translate into an increase in seats, Mike Nesbitt resigned as leader.
Under Colum Eastwood, the SDLP seems to have marginally reversed their downward trend by proportionally making a net gain. Their candidate in Upper Bann retook a seat after losing it to Sinn Fein in 2016. The SDLP’s stronghold of Foyle saw a significant increase in support for Sinn Fein. Nonetheless, the party that once polled the most overall votes is still struggling to find a solution to its identity problem. It must carve out a distinct place for itself if it is to seriously challenge Sinn Fein in future.
The liberal and cross community Alliance Party held all eight of its seats. Its overall share of the vote increased by 2.1 percent making it eligible to join the official opposition for the first time. Their new leader Naomi Long performed strongly in the BBC leaders’ debate, winning a subsequent opinion poll. Under her leadership, the party came close to taking a seat in both South Down and Belfast North, but was excluded on the last count. Continued steady growth in these two constituencies could lead to future success. The Green party also consolidated its strong showing from 2016.
Presently, the five main parties have entered talks on forming a new Executive. They have three weeks to successfully negotiate or the Northern Ireland Secretary will call another election. Should these fail, direct rule could return for the first time since 2007. Charlie Flanagan, the Irish foreign minister, has increased the pressure by speaking strongly against an increased negotiation length and the possibility of direct rule.
Sinn Fein have stated that they will not enter an Executive with Foster as first minister until the independent inquiry set up prior to the election publishes its findings. The DUP have reiterated their determination to nominate Foster to the role. However, a DUP MP has mooted the possibility of Foster stepping down and returning as first minister after the inquiry. This will have to be resolved before any Executive can be formed. Aside from Foster’s intransigence, an agreement on a budget for 2017/18 must be made within the next three weeks or the civil service will take over control. This has clearly caused unease within the Alliance. The head of the civil service has stated that this is the single most important issue for the Executive.
Sinn Fein will use the negotiations to press for an Irish Language Act that was provided for in the St Andrews Agreement in 2006. However, the party has refused to be drawn on whether a DUP U-turn on an act is a prerequisite for any future Executive, so there might be room for compromise. Other outstanding issues such as investigations into wrongdoing by soldiers during the Troubles will also play a role in the talks. These cases have strongly divided the political parties with many unionists wishing to protect soldiers from what they see as a disproportionate number of investigations.
Another stumbling block will be the appointment of a justice minister, the only position in the Executive elected by a cross community vote in the Assembly, as opposed to party strength under d’Hondt. After Alliance announced that it would not be nominating someone for the position in 2016, crisis talks resulted in independent unionist Claire Sugden being elected to the role. She has since been re-elected to the Assembly and is open to returning to the DoJ. The DUP are highly unlikely to accept a nationalist candidate, especially not one from Sinn Fein. The ball is therefore firmly in Sinn Fein’s court.
If an Executive is formed, it will have to deal with a multitude of problems arising from Brexit. Unlike the other devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, the Northern Ireland Executive did not publish a Brexit strategy in the aftermath of the EU Referendum. The CBI argues that the region is more vulnerable to economic damage than the rest of the UK and is at risk of companies moving to the Republic. Northern Ireland’s industry relies heavily on the EU with 60 percent of its exports going to EU countries.
Over the coming weeks it will become clearer if the parties, urged on by the British and Irish Governments, will reach an accommodation. At the moment, it is uncertain whether the UUP, SDLP or Alliance will enter a future DUP and Sinn Fein lead Executive. The most likely outcome is that it will prove too difficult for these smaller parties to reconcile their objectives with Sinn Fein and the DUP, and the safety of the official opposition benches may prove to be more appealing. What is clear, however, is that we are far from seeing a return to stability in the devolved institutions. The election may be over, but the process of providing a government that can deliver is yet to begin.