Is Northern Ireland heading for a second election? James Brokenshire seems to think so

With power-sharing in the balance, NI minister James Brokenshire is talking up the possibility of a new poll. 

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Could Northern Ireland be set for its third assembly election in less than 12 months? James Brokenshire seems to think so. That the Northern Ireland secretary is talking up the prospect of another snap poll to resolve the impasse at Stormont could be read as savvy expectation management - were it not for the very real likelihood that these talks will end without Sinn Fein and the DUP reaching a settlement.
 
In a letter to Northern Irish MPs yesterday, Brokenshire wrote: “I am clear that I am not contemplating any other outcome but a resumption of devolved government as soon as possible”. Although both Sinn Fein and the DUP have been making conciliatory noises and seem to have a genuine appetite to make devolved government work again, it remains to be seen whether there is any way of making their visions compatible – or if Brokenshire is the man to do it.
 
It is clear from the secretary of state’s letter that he is on a collision course with this inconvenient reality. He has proposed, beyond the formation of a new executive, that current talks focus on “addressing other outstanding issues and commitments, including addressing the legacy of the past”.

Like Brokenshire, the nationalists themselves say their priority – beyond the departure of Arlene Foster – is the resolution of existing agreements. Chief among those are official recognition for the Irish language and a new, independent body for dealing with outstanding Troubles cases, both of which feature in as-yet unimplemented Stormont House and Fresh Start agreements of 2014 and 2015 respectively. 

Here Sinn Fein’s unstoppable force meets the immovable object that is Theresa May’s need to placate the DUP and shore up her parliamentary majority. Brokenshire, in a fairly transparent sop to the DUP and right-wing press, has pledged to overhaul the proposed Historical Investigations Unit so as to effectively give British soldiers immunity from prosecution (prompting a row with Irish minister Charlie Flanagan). 

This has fed the nationalist perception that Brokenshire is a compromised and partisan mediator. This, in addition to the seeming incompatibility with the two main parties’ stances on legacy issues, could yet derail talks and preclude a new agreement. 

And it would, by Brokenshire's own criteria, trigger another election (most likely in May). If the early consensus at Westminster is anything to go by, this would likely mean a remarkably similar result – at least in terms of the number of seats won by the nationalist and unionist blocs. Whether the individual parties of nationalism and unionism will put in repeat performances is another matter entirely. 

Some fear another pitched battle dominated by Sinn and Fein and the DUP could further squeeze already modest vote shares of the SDLP and UUP, as their respective communities “return to the sectarian trenches”. It is the latter, already reduced from 16 seats to 10, which has the most to fear. It has, over the past decade, lost almost half its seats and faces intense questioning as to its continued relevance. Some in the DUP believe the spectre of a poll on reunification raised by Sinn Fein’s recent surge will spook unionists and consolidate their electoral hold on the community. For the UUP, symbolic reduction to single figures could hasten a merger with their larger rival – a prospect unpopular with rank-and-file members but increasingly touted as inevitable by senior figures in both parties. 

The UUP and SDLP would be at particular risk if the next campaign is as nakedly sectarian as this month’s. Irish News columnist Newton Emerson’s astute election-night analysis of the new make-up of Stormont is worth remembering here. “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.”

Indeed, the cross-community Alliance party won 50 per cent more first preference votes compared to last year, and could well make further inroads into the soft unionist and nationalist voter base – especially if the Brexit process begins without Northern Ireland’s politicians having any substantive means of influencing negotiations, and Sinn Fein therefore receive a further boost by virtue of their ardent pro-EU platform (that the SDLP are similarly inclined was almost certainly an important factor in the remarkable resilience of their vote this time around). 

James Brokenshire may yet manage to pull something off and repay the considerable trust placed in him by the prime minister, who views him as one of her most trusted lieutenants. But if he doesn’t, another poll is looming. 

Now read John Bew's analysis of Dublin's reaction to the republican surge.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.