Northern Ireland’s new political terrain

Tommy Greene maps the wider context of the momentous recent Stormont election results

May 15, 2022 · 7 min read
Norther Ireland’s parliament buildings. Photo: Robert Paul Young

The symbolic importance of Northern Ireland’s recent assembly elections result, even if downplayed in Britain, was lost on few other observers, as Sinn Féin became the first ever Irish nationalist party to top the poll and win the highest number of seats at the Stormont assembly. Michelle O’Neill is now First Minister designate for the region’s devolved governing institutions – just over a century after the ‘Protestant parliament and Protestant state’ were created through the partitioning of Ireland.

O’Neill’s party secured around 65,000 (8%) more first-preference votes than the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – unionism’s hegemonic force for the past two decades. Sinn Féin retained its 27-seat share from 2017 (then thought to be a watermark), while Jeffrey Donaldson’s party lost 3 legislative members (MLAs) on its last result – another historic election that saw unionism’s parliamentary majority cracked for the first time ever.

A vote for change?

Having won the popular vote in the 2020 elections for the southern Irish state’s parliament, and set to be the biggest party in the formation of the next government in Dublin, Sinn Féin wasted little time in declaring last week’s result to be a clear mandate for securing a border poll within the next decade. In reality, a number of obstacles stand in the way of such a plebiscite taking place within that time-frame – not least because the power to grant one remains with the British government – and privately the party knows a longer game will be required to achieve it.

Other significant changes have been recorded in terms of the composition of the regional legislature-in-waiting. Despite a campaign in which a shadow had been cast by recurring intimidation of participants – mainly directed towards female candidates – voters returned the youngest ever assembly, while more of its seats than ever are now held by women (although the figure is still just over a third of all available).

But, for all that is new and the historic nature of the moment, a dreaded sense of déjà vu has descended on the province this week as a fresh period of protracted standoff beckons – making it unlikely a new devolved government will take shape for some number of months. While the DUP holds out in the hope of securing concessions around its stated goals of scrapping the Northern Ireland protocol entirely – announcing on Friday that it would not nominate a speaker, and thus obstructing the return to a functioning executive – the region’s parliament adds to its less-desirable records of recent years, chalking up yet more time out of session.

Beyond the headlines

Northern Ireland’s public services, meanwhile, languish amid the worst cost of living crisis in generations. The region’s healthcare waiting lists are seeing some patients wait as long as seven years for medical procedures, its public transport budget is less than a third of the per head UK average, and its mental health spend is the lowest of any jurisdiction on these islands – despite its status as a post-conflict society.

Multi-sector industrial action coinciding with the final weeks of the campaign has also seen transport, local authority and education workers go on strike. As writer and commentator Susan McKay put it: ‘This is not a good time to refuse to govern.’

Growing disillusionment with more than two decades of orange and green institutional confrontation has seen appeal broaden for a space filled by a constitutionally agnostic, vague progressivism – one which in effect ‘means anything that isn’t the DUP’, as pointed out by University of Ulster lecturer, Stephen Baker. If the formation of a new executive is to happen any time soon, the limits of that progressivism will be made increasingly clear.

The left’s position

A minority of left-leaning forces within the broader cross-community grouping that had been key to seeing through long-demanded legislation around climate change, integrated education and gender violence ahead of this election, however, saw their electoral positions squeezed. The socialist People Before Profit, having gone into the election hopeful of adding another seat to its tally, in the end returned just one – while the Greens lost both its MLAs, including party leader Clare Bailey.

The once-dominant ‘middle ground’ parties of moderate nationalism and unionism – Northern Ireland’s largest political forces at the time of the 1998 Belfast Agreement – were some of the other major casualties of the ballot. British Labour’s sister party, the SDLP, lost a third of its MLAs – including deputy leader and outgoing Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon. Having placed healthcare and the cost of living crises at the heart of its campaign, a number of missteps including the party’s decision to again canvass alongside Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – historic civil war rivals of the Irish right representing the old guard of the southern state – were punished heavily by voters.

The DUP’s hard-right electoral pitch, designed to protect the wing of its supporters most sensitive to Jim Allister’s hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) group, managed to galvanise both the nationalist and the anti-Brexit Alliance Party vote. Donaldson’s wager to foreground the NI protocol throughout a campaign that effectively began with its decision to collapse the assembly ultimately alienated a younger electorate that was repeatedly reminded of his party’s strategic miscalculations over Brexit, the organisation’s recent internal chaos, and its longer-term intransigence in the face of growing post-1998 social liberalisation.

The liberal-centrist Alliance, which made major gains at the expense of a splintered unionism and floundering rival ‘moderate’ parties, is now comfortably the third-biggest force at Stormont, having more than doubled its number of seats last week. This new presence brings with it new questions for the future of the devolved institutions, backed up by the soon-to-be published results of the 2021’s census likely to show major demographic changes.

Uncharted territory

Alliance’s dominance of the non-aligned bloc – Stormont’s new ‘tribe’ – may complicate the greater institutional accommodations to Northern Ireland’s ‘third constituency’ for which party leader Naomi Long has campaigned. Her negotiating position, however, is enviable in comparison with Donaldson’s – who may struggle to get around the fact that the drop in his party’s vote inevitably weakens its mandate to delay executive formation while attempting to save face in extracting further concessions around the protocol.

The outworkings of its Brexit miscalculations have once again left the DUP between a rock and a hard place. It may feel that a repeat election in six months’ time – in which PUL voters could rally around the party to reassert some kind of institutional dominance, even if only symbolic – is now its strongest remaining card to play. But, less than a year after polling saw its two main rivals leapfrog the party, this would be far from a safe bet.

For the intervening period, in the words of veteran civil rights leader, Eamonn McCann, it is essentially anyone’s guess. As he bluntly stated this week: ‘We’re in uncharted territory.’

Tommy Greene is a freelance journalist based in Belfast

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