Stormy times

Stormont, Northern Ireland

Unionists have lost their Stormont majority for the first time as uncertainty grows, writes Adrianne Peltz

Last month saw voters in Northern Ireland return to the ballot boxes for the second assembly elections in the space of just 10 months. Northern Ireland’s democracy has a reputation for being difficult to explain to outsiders – as the media coverage and conflicting opinions around the recent death of former IRA commander turned deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, shows. Once again this snap election has left secretary of state James Brokenshire bewildered by events and seemingly ineffective in its aftermath.

In what was to become his final political act, the precarious power-sharing between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist party was rocked when McGuinness resigned on 9 January in a revolt against the refusal of DUP first minister Arlene Foster to temporarily step aside during an independent enquiry into the botched renewable heat incentive scandal. Foster had presided over the scheme as minister for enterprise trade and investment, with an estimated cost of £1bn over the next 20 years, after a whistleblower revealed officials failed to put in cost controls – leading to a £400m overspend. With no compromise in sight, and Brokenshire failing to broker a deal, McGuinness’ resignation automatically triggered March’s election.

This election also whittled down the number of members of the legislative assembly, going from 108 seats to 90, a reduction from six MLAs to five across each of the 18 constituencies. With decline in voter participation every year since the record 70 per cent turnout in 1998’s watershed election, the fear of election fatigue and voter apathy was palpable.

However voters came out in the biggest numbers in a decade with a 65 per cent turnout – a 10 point increase from just 10 months ago. Most significantly, the nationalist community regrouped at the ballot box over perceived arrogance in the DUP’s handling of the RHI scandal and their blocking an Irish Language Act.

Unionists were the biggest losers, losing both votes and proportion of the newly reduced assembly. The DUP maintained just 28 and the Ulster unionists just 10, prompting the resignation of their party leader Mike Nesbitt. This marks a significant transformation in Northern Ireland’s politics, as the first time unionist parties have not won a majority of seats. Sinn Féin, under the new leadership of Michelle O’Neill, emerged with 27 seats, managing to avoid a backlash for triggering what many called an unnecessary election. Labour’s sister party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, defied the peculiarities of single transferrable vote, maintaining 12 seats – with a nail biting count in Lagan Valley that saw Pat Catney clinch the final spot to unseat the DUP incumbent with transfers from the UUP. The Alliance party, who are neither unionist nor nationalist, also held fast at eight seats.

The DUP’s loss of seats prevents it from unilaterally using the petition of concern mechanism, which they frequently use to block bills such as the introduction of same-sex marriage and abortion. With the main two parties effectively in mourning – one for their former leader and the other their former assembly stronghold – the immediate fallout has been tense, and a third election may not be out of the question.

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Adrianne Peltz is a Labour member and human rights campaigner in Northern Ireland. She tweets at @adi_peltz

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