On Thursday the electorate of Northern Ireland voted in the 6th election for the Northern Ireland Assembly, a product of the devolution agreements brought about in 1998 by Labour’s Northern Ireland Act (Devolved Administrations: Who, What, When and Why?). This has seen as rise to the Irish Nationalist vote, underestimated by the polls, with the Sinn Fein vote increasing by almost 4% and unionist parties no longer holding a majority in the Northern Irish legislature.
2017’s election comes just ten months after the previous assembly elections. This is due to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein resigning in January in protest over a botched Renewable Heat Energy Initiative (RHI) which will cost the taxpayers an estimated £490 million. The poor subsidy rate left the scheme open to abuse as claimants could earn more the greater fuel they burned, with McGuinness calling this a conflict of interests on part of First Minister Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The “Cash for Ash” scandal has caused intense fractions between the main parties. Other reasons for his resignation include Brexit, opposed by Sinn Fein and supported by the DUP, same-sex marriage, the refusal of the DUP to hold inquest into killings during ‘The Troubles’ (Sinn Fein has historical connections with the IRA) and a potential Irish language act. UK Minister for Northern Ireland had no choice to call new elections. McGuinness through ill-health also gave way to a fresh new Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill.
Northern Irish politics is unusual in the fact that citizens’ voting behaviour is often determined by their view on constitutional issues. Left-wing Sinn Fein, led by Gerry Adams Irelandwide, has long called the reunification of the entirety of Ireland, whilst the long-dominant DUP committed to the union with mainland Britain. The Good Friday Peace Agreement, which brought an end to thirty years of sectarian conflict in Ireland, demands that the largest nationalist party and largest unionist party work with one another in government, with their leaders First Minister and Deputy respectively.
The results of the 2017 election are an earthquake in Northern Irish politics, first preference votes (the elections are run based on Single Transferable Vote) put Sinn Fein within 0.2% of the DUP. The DUP lost their majority for the first time in their history with 28 seats (-10) to Sinn Fein’s 27 (-1). NB the number of legislature members (MLAs) reduced from 108 to 90 since the last election. The tightness of the two parties puts power-sharing at risk, with corruptable Arlene Foster refusing to step aside and Sinn Fein unwilling to go into government with her as First Minister. The moderate Ulster Unionist Party also dropped into 4th place, their leader Mike Nesbitt resigning, with moderate nationalist SDLP holding their seats. The strength of the nationalist parties and toxicity and polarisation of Northern Irish politics has created a third constitutional crisis for the Conservative government, alongside Brexit and growing calls from the Scottish Nationalist Party for a second referendum on independence. This is further complicated by the fact that reunification with the Republic has become more attractive for the people of Ireland following the threat of a hard-border after Brexit (Northern Ireland voted 55.8% to remain in the European Union). Moreover, the DUP are now two seats short of the ability to impose a Voice of Concern – a veto measure used to block progressive issues favoured by the nationalists, such as same-sex marriage.
If the nationalist and unionist parties cannot come to a power-sharing agreement within a three week timeframe, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire has three options:
- Give the leaders more time to negotiate as a deal looks likely
- Call new elections
- Take back devolved powers and run direct rule from Westminster
Hence, this election is politically unprecedented to a system designed to protect the interests of the Unionist cause, and could threaten the very nature of the Union. Sinn Fein have made clear that, although willing to negotiate with the DUP, they desire to break the status quo. According to Gerry Adams, the idea of “a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished”. The huge rise of 10% in turnout (64.8%), and the highest since 1998, demonstrates the growing anger among Irish citizens over corruption and also major constitutional issues such as Brexit, especially since the border with the Republic has become virtually invisible since the Good Friday Agreement, enormous progress since the political and religious violence beforehand. This remarkable result has left the future of the United Kingdom in the balance, with direct UK rule firmly on the cards.