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3 March 2017

Northern Ireland election: What do we know so far?

Turnout is up 10 per cent on last year - can Sinn Fein beat the DUP?

By Patrick Maguire

The results of Northern Ireland’s snap assembly election – held yesterday – are beginning to trickle in. Under Northern Ireland’s devolution settlement, members of the legislative assemby (MLAs) are elected to represent 18 five-member constituencies using the single transferable vote (STV) system, with the final picture likely to remain unclear until tomorrow. But what do we know so far?

Turnout is up

Plenty of commentators (myself included) had assumed the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that triggered yesterday’s poll, the bitter orange-on-green campaign that preceded it, and general disillusionment would result in election fatigue and a low turnout. Such predictions were misplaced: Thursday’s turnout of 64.8 per cent was up an impressive 10 per cent on last year. That total is exceeded only by the turnout at the 1998 election, which took place in the immediate aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement. 

There were, in hindsight, several clear indications that this election had engaged more of the Northern Irish public than the pundits noticed. The BBC’s leaders’ debate attracted an audience that was 75.5 per cent higher than its 2016 equivalent. There are several competing interpretations of what this spike in turnout means. The cross-community Alliance party have spun the figure as a sign voters want to make devolution work, while other commentators put it down to the tribalism of the main parties’ campaigns and anger at the dissolved executive’s mishandling of the cash for ash fiasco.  

The DUP are in trouble…

As was widely predicted, the DUP has taken a hit in support. This is unsurprising, given the scale of public anger over cash for ash. The party may well only just squeak past 30 (out of 90) seats. As of Friday evening, the DUP is more or less level on first preference votes with Sinn Fein – and there is a very real chance Arlene Foster’s party might end up in second place. The nuances of the DUP’s election night script reveals an anxiety that it faces a historic demotion (no nationalist party has ever won the most seats in a devolved Northern Irish legislature). The party’s talking heads have insisted they are on course to end up merely “the largest unionist party”.
 
It remains to be seen whether such a decisive humiliation would bring about Foster’s resignation. The circumstances of the assembly’s collapse – and the DUP’s reductive “Project Fear” appeal to its unionist base – would make it difficult to interpret as anything other than a rejection of Foster’s leadership. If this election were happening anywhere else, it would likely make her position untenable. But, as ever, the ordinary rules of politics cannot be applied so readily here. Many in the DUP resent the idea that Foster’s resignation would effectively give Sinn Fein, within whose gift the ability to form an executive with the DUP lies, power of veto over its new leader.

…and Sinn Fein look unwilling to compromise

Sinn Fein and its new leader Michelle O’Neill are sticking resolutely to their own campaign script – emphasising that they are only willing to cooperate with a party which prioritises “equality”. The glaring subtext here is that “equality” means concessions such as an Irish Language Act. In other words, that party isn’t the DUP. There is also a great deal of debate over what Sinn Fein’s improved mandate actually means. Is it an invitation to the party to return to Stormont triumphant, or a signal that its voters fundamentally reject the institution?

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As I wrote yesterday, Sinn Fein has much to gain from a period of strategic bargaining – and the prevailing mood in Northern Ireland is that an executive is unlikely to be formed in the medium term. A period of direct rule from London is looking likely, which means, as Liverpool University’s Jon Tonge told BBC Northern Ireland earlier, that Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire “is being elected five times in each constituency”. 

The SDLP and UUP are struggling

Once the dominant nationalist and unionist parties, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Ulster Unionist Party now struggle for relevance – and may well fail to reach double figures. Their decision to withdraw from the executive and form an official opposition after last year’s election has not been vindicated, and, indeed, may well have hastened their decline. The reduction in seats from 108 to 90 also dealt both parties particularly bad hands. Instead, the big beneficiaries of the slump in DUP support looks to be the centrist, non-sectarian Alliance party, among others, rather than the UUP. 

The Irish News columnist Newton Emerson told the BBC that the parties’ decision to form Stormont’s first ever opposition had backfired spectacularly. “In our model of devolution, there’s only room for three parties: unionist, nationalist, and ‘other’,” he said. “If devolution under this model is going to come back, which I think is quite dubious in the short term, the long term lesson that might be drawn from that is that going into opposition was totally toxic for the UUP and SDLP. They’re about to be crushed out of existence and that moment of truth for that three party system has arrived.”

The often ugly and nakedly sectarian tone of this election campaign clearly hasn’t helped the moderates’ cause. Asked why his party had failed to break through, the UUP’s Alan Chambers said: “We keep hoping that Northern Ireland will have elections on bread and butter issues like everybody else has. But invariably it keeps getting called back to this orange and green election, and it’s really very sad.”

Watch out too for another consequence of the DUP and UUP collapse: unionist MLAs, for the first time in Stormont’s history, could be denied a majority of seats.