On 2 March, voters in Northern Ireland went to the polls for the second time in just over nine months to elect members to the devolved Assembly at Stormont. The election was precipitated by the resignation of Sinn Féin’s deputy first minister Martin McGuinness in the wake of the so-called ‘cash for ash’ scandal – the controversy over the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, where homeowners were offered subsidies for using certain types of ‘green’ fuels which were greater than the cost of the fuel itself. The scheme was launched by first minister Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in 2012 when she was in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and will likely cost the taxpayer £490 million. McGuinness’ resignation also comes amid reports that the 66-year-old is battling serious illness. He has been succeeded as Sinn Féin’s leader in the province by Michelle O’Neill, one of the party’s first senior figures to lack any history of direct involvement in republican paramilitarism.
Turnout increased by 10% compared with the 2016 election, and a reduction in the number of seats in the Assembly from 108 to 90 made the contest particularly intense. Following the vote, the DUP remain the biggest party with 28 seats (down from 38), but Sinn Féin held 27 of their 28 seats, putting them only marginally behind. The moderate nationalist SDLP held on to 12 seats, despite losing former minister Alex Attwood, and the Ulster Unionists slipped into fourth place with 10 (down from 16), leading to the resignation of party leader Mike Nesbitt. The vast majority of votes in the province (77%) are still cast for sectarian parties – that is, for either republican, nationalist, unionist, or loyalist parties – but the non-aligned Alliance party (8 seats) enjoyed its best result since the Good Friday Agreement, picking up support from disaffected unionists who were frustrated by the DUP’s hardline approach. The results overall are stark for unionists, who have lost their majority in the Assembly for the first time ever. Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams jubilantly declared that ‘the era of unionist dominance in Stormont has ended’.
Sinn Féin are a remarkably well-organised outfit, and the results can partly be explained by excellent vote management and sustained campaigning which pushed the Sinn Féin tally up by 60,000 votes. However, the results also reflect DUP weaknesses and missteps. Before the election, amid accusations of arrogance and insensitivity, Arlene Foster rejected calls for an Irish Language Act (a component part of the 2007 St Andrews Agreement) by stating that ‘If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more’. Foster was playing to the unionist gallery, but this comment seems to provoked undecided or occasional nationalist voters to turn out for Sinn Féin candidate. The Belfast Telegraph’s Noel McAdam was prophetic when he remarked a month before polling that Foster’s ‘crocodile remark could come back to bite her’.
One important consequence of the DUP’s loss of support is that it no longer has enough Assembly members (MLAs) to initiate ‘petitions of concern’ – a controversial veto mechanism which means a proposal can only pass with the support of with the support of a weighted majority (60%) of members voting, including at least 40% of voting nationalist and unionist members, rather than by just a simple majority. This may allow for the introduction of some significant social policy changes in this most conservative part of the UK and Ireland, potentially including marriage equality, to which the DUP is implacably opposed. But this all depends on whether an executive can actually be formed. Given how the seats have been distributed, and the atmosphere prevailing in the aftermath of the poll, this may prove impossible.
On 8 March, Sinn Féin broke off talks with Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire when he refused to provide financial support for inquests into deaths during the Troubles. Such machinations are nothing new for Northern Irish politics, but Sinn Féin clearly feel emboldened by their success. The party has also said it will not nominate a deputy first minister if Arlene Foster remains as DUP leader (and putative first minister) whilst the inquiry into the RHI scandal is ongoing. As the DUP is still smarting from its poor showing, it may be impossible to reach an agreement before the three-week deadline for negotiations ends. Ministers in London are poised to re-impose direct rule if the two biggest parties are
unable to reach an agreement. It is possible that Sinn Féin might welcome this, in the hope that it will expose the intransigence of the DUP and the limitations of the devolution settlement – thereby adding ballast to the republican campaign for the unification of Ireland.
The Assembly election also echoed with the results of the ‘Brexit’ referendum, and may tell us something about the direction the province is headed politically. Voters in Northern Ireland voted 56-44% for Remain, and 60 of the 90 seats in the new Assembly are for parties that backed EU membership. The DUP called for a Leave vote last June, and now finds itself in a clear minority on the issue. Only time will tell what impact this may have on the DUP, its policies, and its leadership.
With respect to potential spillovers on politics in the rest of the island of Ireland, even moderate politicians in the Republic are now talking about the prospect of a border poll to reunify the island. These voices have been around for a hundred years, but never have they been taken as seriously as they are now. Somewhat remarkably, Taoiseach Enda Kenny – never seen as an avid republican – is lobbying his EU counterparts for the Article 50 negotiations to include a reference to the possibility of unification.
The election was a good day for republicans and nationalists and a bad day for unionists. Rumours are still swirling about Arlene Foster’s future, and the parties have less than a week left to form an executive before direct rule is imposed. This instability is far from ideal for Theresa May’s government in the lead-up to the triggering of Article 50. Northern Ireland could very easily sleepwalk into a political crisis, or perhaps something worse – after all, violence has never been far away in the province’s troubled past. It will take leadership to reach a sustainable agreement, with the onus on every party to deliver.