Voters shake things up in Stormont

On Thursday 2nd March, Northern Irish voters once again went to the polls, barely 10 months after they elected a new Assembly and although very few actually changed their votes, the result will have a dramatic effect on Northern Irish Politics.

The election occurred as a result of the collapse of the power sharing government after Sinn Fein withdrew from the government. Such was a strategic choice after the DUP and First Minister Arlene Foster were embarrassed by their commitment to poorly worded renewable energy policy, the so called ‘cash for ash’ scandal. The policy saw people rewarded for using energy unnecessarily and is predicted to cost over £400 million. Sinn Fein’s actions were also inspired by growing opposition by both Unionists and Republicans to the tradition of power sharing established by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

As results came in over the following few days, it became clear that the election signals a major shift in Northern Irish Politics with Unionist parties losing their majority in the assembly after a 9.8% surge in turnout, with particularly significant increases in Republican Neighbourhoods. Consequently, the election saw the previously dominant Democratic Unionist Party lose a net 5 seats and the Ulster Unionist Party lose 1 seat, on the notional 2016 result, whilst republican Sinn Fein gained 4 seats and the SDLP another seat. In a dramatic move, Sinn Fein now has only 1 less seat than the DUP, down from the DUP’s former advantage of 10 more seats, and was less than 1,200 first-preference votes behind.

A major fallout from the election, is that the DUP no longer possess the numbers to issue a ‘petition of concern’, which provided the party an effective veto on legislation. This means, for example, it is far more likely for Gay marriage to be legalised in Northern Ireland, as on the last occasion in which a vote was held, in November, the DUP vetoed the Sinn Fein proposal, despite a majority of the assembly being in favour. All eyes now fall on the UUP who could still block the proposal as a majority of both Unionist and Republican have to back legislation for it to pass.

Furthermore, the election result has once again raises questions around the practice of power sharing, as Sinn Fein continues to argue it will not work with the DUP while their leader Arlene Foster remains in charge and she continues to refuse to resign, making a period of direct rule all but inevitable bar a last-minute change of heart or strategy. The parties have three weeks to come to an agreement which will form the basis for a new power-sharing executive, failure to do such will result in fresh elections.

The election is also concrete evidence of an increasing dissatisfaction and alienation of Republicans in Northern Ireland not seen since the Troubles. Such is a consequence of the arrogance of First Minister Arlene Foster and her party’s decision to support leaving the European Union — which show a complete disrespect for the regions complex history and conflicted identity, as well as the Brexit strategy of the UK government. Such problems, can only be aggressed by a more conciliatory approach from the DUP, the resignation of Arlene Foster, and Theresa May taking greater thought over the impacts of her ‘Hard Brexit’ on Northern Ireland.

There are many lessons to be learnt from this election: Unionists need to recognise that they too have a responsibility in maintaining power sharing and avoiding the reignition of conflict — all the give cannot come from the republican parties. Similarly, Theresa May, despite reminding us in her first address to the nation of her party being called the ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’, needs to recognise that her government is responsible for the whole country = and thus needs to start recognising the needs of the other member nations of the UK besides England, especially Northern Ireland — otherwise the threat of the UK being torn apart will raise its ugly head once again.

This article was written for and published in March 2017’s edition of Bath Impact. Bath Impact is the University of Bath’s Student Newspaper.

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