Last week’s election to the Northern Ireland Assembly might have been low key, but it was historic for a number of reasons. Turnout was the highest since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The outcome marks the first time that the unionist parties failed to win a majority of seats, while Sinn Féin received its highest ever share of the vote.
In fact, just 12,000 votes separated what was a good night for Sinn Féin into one that would have been truly momentous. The republicans missed out on being the largest party in Northern Ireland by a single seat. Although they came first at the 2014 European Parliament election, to have come out on top at an Assembly election would have had profound symbolism, as well as entitling them to nominate their candidate for the positon of First Minister.
The election was ostensibly prompted by the resignation of Martin McGuinness from the Northern Ireland Executive over the Democratic Unionist Party’s handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive – a botched subsidy scheme that is likely to cost taxpayers more than half a billion pounds. Although frustration with the DUP’s non-inclusive governing style and personal dislike of their leader, Arlene Foster, was undoubtedly a motivating factor, political opportunism also played a part in the decision. Sinn Féin calculated that voters were becoming disillusioned with perceptions of DUP cronyism and an Assembly that at times seemed to be more concerned with culture wars than everyday concerns like jobs and public services. The DUP’s support for Brexit in a part of the country that voted to remain in the EU also presented the republicans with an opportunity to improve their position.
Although the new Assembly will see proportionally more Sinn Féin Assembly Members, thanks in part to a reduction in the number of MLAs, it should not be read for certain that the result will usher in sweeping change, much less constitutional upheaval. The power sharing arrangements mean that the composition of the Executive will not look radically different, even if the DUP will no longer have the powers to issue a Petition of Concern – a legislative mechanism that can be used to require a majority of unionist and nationalist votes for a measure to pass. Much was made of the DUP’s losses in terms of seats, but there was no collapse in their vote, which was largely consistent with last year’s election.
Negotiations will now begin on composition of a new Executive. As with previous political confrontations since the Good Friday Agreement, there will be an element of brinkmanship from all sides. Sinn Féin have said that they will not participate in an Executive with Mrs Foster as First Minister. The DUP are adamant that they have a mandate sufficient for her to continue. Some of the issues that divided the two parties inside the Executive, such as a stronger role for the Irish language, are now being used as bargaining chips in a higher stakes game.
At the same time, it is difficult to imagine that either side will collapse the Assembly and allow a return to direct rule from Westminster. Sinn Féin will want to consolidate their wins, not least because their long-term strategy of transitioning from armed conflict to political participation has brought them to their strongest position yet. The DUP will not want to be seen to be putting the interests of their leader – who has started to attract criticism inside her party – over those of the province as a whole. All parties appear genuinely committed to making the devolved institutions work, regardless of current disagreements or their aspirations for any future constitutional settlement.