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Northern Ireland’s three-way split

Thomas Evans discusses what the Northern Irish election results mean for the region.

For the first time since the foundation of Northern Ireland, a nationalist/republican party with the expressed aim of a united Ireland is the largest party in Stormont, the Northern Irish parliament. Sinn Fein received the most first preference votes, the largest vote share, and the most seats in the 5th May election, returning 27 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) out of the 90 positions up for grabs. As part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing between representative parties of the two ethno-nationalist communities in Northern Ireland is a prerequisite for a devolved administration. So, if the two largest parties following the election – nationalist/republican Sinn Fein and the unionist/loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) -manage to strike a deal and form a power-sharing executive, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neil will become First Minister. This would be a monumental milestone in the history of Northern Ireland, which has had a unionist Premier since the country’s establishment in 1921. 

The cross-community Alliance Party was the other big winner of the election. Despite a marginal decrease in vote-share, Alliance increased its returned MLA count by nine – the largest increase of any party in the election. The Social Democratic Unionist Party (SDLP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) both lost seats (four and one, respectively) and vote share. The Green Party has been completely wiped out, losing their only two MLAs in the Assembly. But it is the DUP who has been the most impacted. The DUP remains the largest unionist party in Stormont with 25 seats, but it lost 6.5% of the vote share and three seats The resulting electoral landscape in Northern Ireland is complex, with patterns going beyond the traditional divide of ‘orange’ and ‘green’ – shorthand for the politics of unionism and nationalism respectively. Broadly, three distinct patterns can be seen: the holding of the Sinn Fein vote, intra-unionist competition, and what looks to be the establishment of a non-aligned third force in Northern Irish politics. 

On the latter, the rise of Alliance, largely at the expense of the SDLP and the UUP, conforms to trends existing since 2006 in Northern Ireland, with an increasing number of people identifying with neither party. Last year, the politics Professor Emeritus Professor John Coakley (University College Dublin and QUB), noted that “a new middle ground is indeed slowly emerging in Northern Ireland”, where changing domestic priorities and increased immigration will produce dynamics in which lower-preference votes are given to parties of the centre (Coakley, 2020: 47). The 5th May election results appear to reflect this. Polling revealed consistent big issues for voters were healthcare and the rising cost of living, not border polls or the Northern Ireland Protocol (which governs customs and immigration issues at the Irish / Northern Irish border post-Brexit). 

As Alliance rises, the UUP and the SDLP, formerly the two largest parties and governmental partners between the establishment of devolution in 1998 and 2002, have continued their downward trajectory. The future looks bleak for these two. Despite the UUP’s attempt to burnish its progressive liberal image under a new leader Doug Beattie, the hoped ‘Beattie Bounce’ fell noticeably short, and the SDLP also faces a painful post-electoral reckoning. It seems unclear where these parties can position themselves. On national issues both parties have been long outbid by the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively, and on middle-ground issues such as health and social care, the economy, and integrated education, the parties look to have been overtaken by Alliance. If the UUP and the SDLP want to stay relevant in Northern Ireland, they must find a way of navigating these two forces.

Sinn Fein has done a much better job at retaining vote-share and seats than its longstanding partner in government. The lack of significant intra-nationalist electoral competition along the lines of the intra-unionist fallout that the DUP has faced in regards to the Northern Ireland Protocol helps explain why the DUP has been knocked into second place. Sinn Fein have become the largest party despite only a modest increase in its vote share (1.1%), and no gained seats. They have also played a tactical game by focusing primarily on social issues this election, such as the cost of living and healthcare investment, and largely avoiding overt messaging that a vote for the party was a vote for Irish unity. They didn’t have to, since the campaign for Irish unity  is obviously the foundational tenet of an organisation that was set up as the political wing of the Provisional IRA (PIRA),and with no intra-nationalist challenger, this left campaigning space and energy for messaging on social issues. Additionally, Sinn Fein has done a good job of keeping its traditional working class voting bases with the party while developing beyond this. Throughout and after the Northern Irish Conflict known as ‘the Troubles’, Sinn Fein developed community structures within republican areas. Many of these community centres are still functioning, and Sinn Fein maintains a strong presence within its traditional heartlands in working class nationalist communities while additionally increasing appeals to a generation born after 1998 and middle class voters. April 2022 polling data showed that Sinn Fein had a dominance of planned first-preference votes in the 18-24 demographic (38% compared to the SDLPs meger 2% in the same cohort), and among middle class, working class, and “other” voting blocks (27%, 29% and 23% respectively). This is not to say that there are no issues within creating this type of ‘big tent’ voting coalition. In certain areas of traditional support, notably areas of Derry, the party has suffered from allegations of ‘jobs for the boys’ and perceptions of the monopolisation of the community sector and peace-funding allocation. Independent councillors took five seats off Sinn Fein on Derry and Strabane District Council in 2019, including the former dissident-republican prisoner Garry Donnelly (who still retains his seat) in the Creggan area of the city, a republican stronghold. Sinn Fein is clearly aware of its vulnerability here, and removed the leadership of the local Sinn Fein Cumann (Irish for ‘branch’), including both its MLAs in 2021. Despite this, the collapse of the SDLP and Sinn Fein’s holding of the vote in Northern Ireland, and its spectacular growth in the Republic of Ireland where the party stands at 36% support – putting it on course to win the next election if this is accurate and voter support holds – puts the party in a very healthy position going forward. 

In comparison, the DUP placed the national question at the centre of its electoral messaginghighlighting the thorny issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the party’s position as the only blockade against a Sinn Fein victory. The largest challenge for the DUP now clearly lies to its right. Though the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) won’t be sending another MLA to join its leader, Jim Allister, in Stormont, the party can claim success in its increase in votes by five percentage points, having challenged the DUP in key battlegrounds like North Antrim and Strangford. It remains to be seen if the TUV will be able to capitalise on its gains from this election, but it has clearly had a huge spoiler effect (a product of vote-splitting) on the DUP, waging a consistent campaign on the Northern Ireland Protocol and eventually contributing to the DUP’s collapse of Stormont. It is unclear what the DUP can do to win back support lost chiefly to the TUV. Ideally, the party should focus on the needs of the communities it represents, for example by alleviating the cost of living crisis and increasing opportunities. This can only be achieved by re-entering Stormont as a constructive partner of government. However, it seems likely that in practice we will see a hardening of positions, not pragmatic politics.

On this point, it is unclear when the DUP will decide to re-enter Stormont, if at all. Failing to re-enter would in effect leave Northern Ireland ruled from Westminster. As the largest unionist party, the DUP is required to nominate a Deputy First Minister and agree a power-sharing executive with Sinn Fein. It is unclear how the party can do this, considering recent statements made by its leader Jeffery Donaldson over refusing to re-enter Stormont until the Northern Ireland Protocol is essentially removed, and the perverse but tempting electoral benefits which could emerge by hardening their position in the face of TUV pressure. Critics of Northern Ireland’s ethnic-tribune system note that the political structure produces what is known as ‘centrifugalism’, whereby parties are rewarded for hard-line appeals to one community to outbid others from within the same ethno-nationalist block. As the TUV’s vote share increase maps largely onto DUP loses, a continuing period of intra-unionist jockeying seems likely. 

Northern Ireland has had periods of power-sharing collapse and reversion to direct rule by Westminster twice since 1998. The longest collapse, from 2002-2007, occurred after the police service of Northern Ireland believed that they had discovered a PIRA spy ring in Stormont, which resulted in the arrest of three Sinn Fein members, though these charges were eventually dropped. The most recent collapse lasted from 2017 to 2020 and was caused by the ‘cash for ash’ green energy scandal tied to then DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster and the DUP’s refusal to agree to an Irish Language Act as a precondition for resuming Stormont. Northern Ireland will face serious problems if Stormont collapses again, most notably the lack of leadership and the inability to pass budgets. This comes at a time when the region – which includes some of the most deprived areas in the United Kingdom – faces a growing cost of living crisis. 

A collapse of Stormont would also likely be seized upon by republicans opposed to the GFA – so-called “dissidents” – for whom it would offer a clear way of discrediting the existing system of politics in Northern Ireland. It must be stressed that ‘physical force republicanism’ is small, fragmented, largely constrained to specific areas in Northern Ireland, and lacks the capability of the Provisional IRA. But Northern Ireland risks a perfect storm of growing deprivation combined with feelings of disenfranchisement among the nationalist/republican community. Groups which recruit in areas of low income and poor opportunity provision, and who utilise historical parallels to highlight continued repression and the supposed failure of the post-GFA state and the peace process, would likely benefit from another Stormont collapse. Loyalist paramilitarism would also likely be strengthened by this political vacuum for the same reasons. 

So where next for Northern Ireland? Despite Sinn Fein’s success, a referendum on Irish unification is unlikely to occur anytime soon, despite the party’s president Mary Lou McDonald now talking about holding a border poll within the next five years. Unionist parties across Stormont still hold a slim majority, and there remain plenty of obstacles in the way of Irish unity. However, this election demonstrates that the likelihood is certainly not decreasing, and Sinn Fein has demonstrated its hegemony in nationalist politics. The growth of Alliance, meanwhile, raises an interesting dilemma for how to accommodate non-aligned parties (and voters) into a political system developed to bridge intractable conflict between unionists and nationalists. 

Once again Northern Ireland is entering into a period of governmental uncertainty. There are challenges across the country which can only be solved by strong, cross-community,good-faith leadership. When Stormont resumed in 2020, roughly three years after the last collapse, it was spurred on in a large part by the death of the journalist Lyra Mckee, who was shot by a gunman of the New IRA in Derry following street disturbances. Parties should remember what can occur when a political vacuum is allowed to manifest and their obligations to govern in the coming days and weeks.

Image credit: Dom0803 / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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