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Why the May elections in Northern Ireland are the most significant in decades

The next conversation won’t be about Irish unity – it will be about the viability of Stormont itself.

By Ailbhe Rea

It is exactly two weeks until voters in Belfast head to the polls for what could be the most important Northern Ireland Assembly election in a generation.

These Stormont elections have been low on the radar of many in Westminster in recent weeks and months, eclipsed by serious international developments in Ukraine and France and by scandals closer to home – namely partygate and Rishi Sunak’s tax affairs. Today is no exception, as the government seeks to kick a privileges committee investigation into Boris Johnson into the long grass.

But when the results start to trickle in on 6 May, alongside local election results for the rest of the UK, we will likely be looking at an historic first: Sinn Féin taking the largest number of seats, and winning the right to appoint the first minister.

Sinn Féin has a decisive lead over the DUP in the most recent opinion polls: 27 per cent to the DUP’s 20 per cent. If the DUP loses two or more of its 28 seats, while Sinn Féin holds on to (or gains on) its 27, that small change would be enough to secure Sinn Féin as the largest party. But that framing belies how close the contest could end up being on a seat-by-seat level, with 18 constituencies, each electing five MLAs by single transferable vote, in play. 

The DUP, bruised by Brexit and a leadership crisis last summer, has been bleeding support to its right and left: to the more liberal UUP on the one hand, and the hardline TUV on the other. But the DUP will be hoping that, come polling day, the prospect of a Sinn Féin first minister will tempt back some of those straying voters, while transfers from the other unionist parties could return to help DUP candidates. 

Sinn Féin, meanwhile, has been consolidating its support in the North. The historic political wing of the IRA has been quietly putting the question of Irish unity on the back burner at these elections, focusing instead on concerns such as the cost of living, which makes it more transfer-friendly for unaligned voters. This is the same strategy that helped Sinn Féin top the polls in the last general election in the Republic of Ireland; speaking to voters’ real concerns, such as the housing crisis and healthcare, and shoring up credibility on those issues, has attracted new voters and helped the party to be seen as a government-in-waiting. Sinn Féin didn’t stand enough candidates at that election to enter government, but polling indicates it is on track to do so next time.  

Facing the realistic prospect of a Sinn Féin first minister in the north and a Sinn Féin taoiseach in the south in the not-too-distant future, a common question in Westminster – and in England, Scotland and Wales – is whether a border poll (a referendum on Irish unity) will become more likely. The short answer is yes, slightly – but Sinn Féin’s shift in focus towards broader issues rather than the constitutional question complicates that. It is for the British secretary of state to call a border poll, and only when it appears likely that a majority would vote in favour of Irish unity: recent polling indicates that only a third of voters in NI would vote for a united Ireland “tomorrow”, and that number does not rise substantially when asked about voting in “ten to 15 years”. The paradox for Sinn Féin is that the more devolved government works, the less the constitutional question is a priority for voters. While the unionist population declines, the growing voter demographic in Northern Ireland is not nationalist, but “unaligned” or undecided.

But that question jumps too many steps ahead, missing the urgent and far more important question right before us: how will Northern Ireland be run when these elections are over? As things stand (and a lot could change in two weeks), the DUP will refuse to nominate a deputy first minister if Sinn Féin is the largest party, and the Stormont executive is unlikely to be restored. The next conversation won’t be about Irish unity. It will be about direct rule (from Westminster) or joint authority (from Westminster and Dublin), and about the very viability of Stormont.

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