A watershed is reached in Northern Ireland

Last week’s snap election in Northern Ireland saw the DUP’s lead over Sinn Féin reduced to a single seat and an Assembly without a unionist majority returned for the first time in the institution’s history. Brian Walker digests the result and considers what might happen next.

Gerry Adams was justified in declaring that the perpetual unionist majority since 1921 was ‘demolished’ in Northern Ireland’s snap election on 2 March. Only 40 seats in an Assembly of 90 members went to the two unionist-designated parties, with Sinn Féin’s 27 seats coming within a whisker of the DUP’s 28. The long-term demographic trend towards a nationalist majority in the province was at last translated into Assembly seats. Turnout, at 65 per cent, was 10 per cent up on May last year, the crucial differential turnout favouring nationalists in particular – the Sinn Féin vote was up by 57,000 compared with 23,000 for the DUP. Fairly small increases in percentage share of the vote – four per cent for nationalists, two per cent for unionists – made crucial differences accentuated by the reduction of seat numbers in the Assembly from 108 to 90. Of 16 lost in an Assembly of ten fewer seats, ten were unionists. Undoubtedly, nationalism has recovered momentum. A chance transfer of only a handful of votes could result in a Sinn Féin First Minister next time and seal the transformation.

Sinn Féin’s success should not be exaggerated. All nationalism’s 40 per cent share is well short of what is necessary for calling the border poll which is likely in time to become a Sinn Féin demand. Nationalist voters may have been keener to punish Arlene Foster and the DUP for arrogance than advance the cause of Irish unity. In any hypothetical straight vote in the Assembly  to test support for Irish unity, the pro-union side could muster around 50 votes to nationalism’s 40. There were other successes. The non- sectarian Alliance party held its 8 seats. The first call for cross community voting, controversially made by the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, ironically helped  save all 12 seats for the minority nationalist SDLP, although  at the cost of losing six of their own 16 seats and Nesbitt’s resignation. Nevertheless the score for centre parties could count in simple majority votes in an Assembly so finely balanced between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

All changed utterly..      

The result dramatically reversed the trend of only ten months previously, when Sinn Féin and the SDLP mustered only 36 per cent of the vote between them in the May 2016 Assembly election, returning just 40 seats, the lowest number for the nationalist parties since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. In contrast, the then newly elected DUP leader Arlene Foster emerged the triumphant winner of a contest which underlined both the DUP’s electoral dominance and broader sense that they were politically in the driving seat, dictating the terms for the new Executive.

In the words of a critical republican commentator:

That performance fitted neatly into a trend of election results which indicated that nationalists were voting in decreasing numbers, contributing towards a series of electoral setbacks for nationalism that was providing much encouragement to a political unionism increasingly of the view that Irish nationalist sentiment was on the wane in a post-conflict Northern Ireland.

It had seemed a willing partnership. In late 2015, in an agreement optimistically labelled Fresh Start, the DUP and Sinn Féin had apparently succeeded in breaking an earlier deadlock over welfare reform and fresh measures to dismantle the surviving elements of paramilitary organisations in the neighbourhoods. They promised a smoother partnership and more cohesive government, aided by allowing the smaller parties to form an official opposition with funding and speaking rights. Progress was to be monitored together with the British and Irish government. They even boasted they were planning a new programme for government together during the following election campaign.

What went wrong?

The Fresh Start agreement proved fragile under stress, first under the impact on the EU referendum. A huge nationalist majority contributed to Northern Ireland voting 56 per cent to 44 per cent for Remain, but was helped by a sizable unionist minority. Campaigning on both sides was light but the DUP was on the losing Leave side locally. Not only did fears of a return to a hard border spur the nationalists on, but the inclusion of unionists in the local result for Remain presented them with plausible model of an eventual united Ireland within the EU.

But the proximate cause of crisis was a breakdown of relationships over the gross mismanagement of a green energy programme called the renewable heat incentive scheme,  designed to reduce NI’s overdependence on oil. Introduced by Arlene Foster as a departmental minister in 2012, it was belatedly discovered to be leeching subsidy at a rate of £1.60 for every pound spent, at a projected cost of £490 million over 20 years. A spectacular internal DUP row between Foster and her departmental DUP successor, Jonathan Bell, over who was responsible was enacted before the cameras. For Sinn Féin this was a crisis too good to waste.  Her crude dismissal of Sinn Féin’s request for her to step aside temporarily to allow her name to be cleared for incompetence riled them badly: ‘Feed a crocodile and it will always come back for more’. Further Sinn Féin probes drew contemptuous rejections. Resisting calls to fulfil a legal obligation to introduce a new strategy for the Irish language, she brusquely replied:  ‘More people speak Polish here than Irish.’ On blocking funding for legacy inquests, she insisted the process was unbalanced between state killings and paramilitary killings: ‘I will not allow any process to rewrite the past.’

By continuing in this vein Foster became Sinn Féin’s recruiting sergeant. Taking deep and theatrical offence, and calling for ‘new respect, equality and integrity in government’, Sinn Féin withdrew from the power sharing Executive in a move which threatens the very survival of the institutions. Their last kick was to set up a public inquiry into the RHI under a retired appeal court judge. The British government made no attempt to intervene.

What happens now?

At the time of writing, pressure within the DUP is mounting for Arlene Foster to stand aside as nominee for First Minister until the inquiry into the RHI fiasco rules on her culpability in six month’s time. The precedents are numerous. She herself stood in for her predecessor twice before succeeding to the substantive role. In the Assembly’s early days John Hume and Gerry Adams, leaders of the SDLP and Sinn Féin respectively, nominated others to fill top ministerial positions.

Three weeks are set aside for interparty negotiations before Westminster intervenes and chooses the option of direct rule in preference to an immediate second election. Direct rule would require the resuscitation of the 2000 Suspension Act or, by way of an amendment to the St Andrews Act, enabling the Secretary of State to extend the negotiating period beyond the three weeks. That would still require direct rule as the talks ensued – as in the period between February and May 2000, when Peter Mandelson finalised the first devolved budget.

To restore the Assembly it is abundantly clear that the DUP need to change their tone and make a fundamental shift of attitudes from relying on narrow unionism and demonising today’s Sinn Féin, to developing the shared future now dictated by demographic change and actually embodied in the ministerial code. The old songs do not resonate so well beyond a diminishing core. Their previous election successes flattered to deceive. Now that the DUP have lost its blocking vote of 30 seats, the prospects have improved for enacting some of Sinn Féin’s wish list, which includes same sex marriage, limited abortion reform, an Irish Language Act and a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights. While the strengthened centre ground would broadly support them, the votes could be tight as the odd stray unionist could join the DUP in blocking them. Sinn Féin may therefore wish to extract guarantees from the DUP not to resist them before agreeing to return to the Executive.

It may suit them politically to use a transitional Assembly without an Executive as a forum for months and wait on events in the Republic. Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s retirement, due within a few weeks, will presage a pre-election period when Sinn Féin will bid for a place in new coalition. Sinn Féin in government north and south and calling for special EU status for the north to match the south’s continuing full membership, creates the outline of a future united Ireland. The substantial risk for them is a repeat of the overbidding which produced the disillusion of only ten months ago. Sinn Féin could still be brought back down to earth if Foster stands aside at the cost of considerable DUP humiliation. Either way the tiny margin of one seat between them could produce only a more finely balanced deadlock. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland needs a budget to be passed by the end of April.

About the author

Brian Walker is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow and media adviser at the Constitution Unit. He is a former political editor for BBC Northern Ireland.

The author is grateful for the expertise of Professor Rick Wilford of Queen’s University Belfast and the commentator and teacher Chris Donnelly in preparing this post.

5 thoughts on “A watershed is reached in Northern Ireland

  1. Pingback: A Poisoned Chalice? The Short Unhappy Fate of UK Party Leaders | politics

  2. Pingback: The Irish government is pursuing Northern Ireland’s interests more actively than the UK government | The Constitution Unit Blog

  3. Pingback: Following the break down of talks in Northern Ireland, what now? | The Constitution Unit Blog

  4. Pingback: A Poisoned Chalice? The Short Unhappy Fate of UK Party Leaders

  5. Is it time to revisit the Good Friday agreement? That imposed compulsory power-sharing, giving both the DUP and SF an effective veto and encouraging extreme positions. If the moderates (UUP, SDLP and APNI) could be in a coalition with one of the two large parties, the other being in opposition, both of them would be driven to more moderate positions.

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