A Vote for Devolution?

06 March 2017 - by Gráinne Walsh

A total of 64.8 per cent of the Northern Ireland electorate voted last Thursday, 2 March, up 10 points on last year. Writing about this election less than three days after the final seat was announced at 3.30am on Saturday, it is difficult to get a handle on what this actually means in the long term.

What we know is that the calling of the election represented the culmination of the political fallout over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) and its aftermath. Issues concerning funding of the Irish language helped crystallise a growing sense of frustration from within nationalist circles that the Stormont institutions, in their current form, were not delivering for them.

On the unionist side, while the number of DUP first preferences increased, the party, under leader Arlene Foster, was without doubt punished for a series of misdemeanours, not least its response to the RHI scandal.

The DUP may maintain the majority at Stormont, but its ascendancy has eroded significantly to just one seat ahead of nearest rival Sinn Féin. It lost 10 MLAs, falling from 38 to 28, four fewer in real terms, taking account of the new 90-seat Assembly.

For many in the DUP it is a deeply disappointing election. Others will feel that the party wasn’t punished as it might have been, consolidating, instead, its hold on the unionist electorate. It also returned three MLAs in the Strangford constituency, where the whistleblowing former DUP DETI Minister Jonathan Bell ran against three incumbent DUP ministers – no mean achievement under the circumstances.

Another success for nationalism saw the SDLP overtake the UUP in third place, its 12 successful candidates besting the UUP’s 10. The latter suffered a number of notable casualties last week, including former Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy, education spokesperson Sandra Overend and well known Health Committee member Jo-Anne Dobson.

Party leader Mike Nesbitt did not escape unscathed, taking responsibility for the poor showing of the UUP before the count was even concluded, announcing his intention to stand down once a replacement had been found.

Alliance’s electoral performance was to its credit, returning all eight outgoing MLAs. That tally came in spite of the increased competition for seats and entitles the party to be part of the official opposition, or the Executive. However, the its growth is hampered by the fact that it does not currently have the capacity to contest all eighteen constituencies.

The election of Clare Bailey as the fifth and final Belfast South MLA in the early hours of Saturday morning had #StayingAwakeforBailey trending as far away as the United States, Australia and even Coventry.

Critically, it ensured that the DUP moved one step further away from the magic number of 30 seats which has enabled it to singlehandedly block any legislation and votes they disagreed with, via the Petition of Concern.

  • This election gives Sinn Féin a boost as talks about restoring the Northern Ireland Executive begin.

  • The Alliance Party has strengthened its position as a broker within the Assembly, entitled as it is now to enter either the Official Opposition or the Executive.

  • There are now 39 nationalist MLAs; while there are 40 unionists. However, unionism is outnumbered by non-unionists.

  • The Green Party retained its two seats despite the squeeze on small parties.

  • People Before Profit are down from two to one MLA as veteran activist Eamonn McCann lost out in Foyle. Gerry Carroll did retain his seat in Belfast West, though targeting by Sinn Féin ensured that the rise of competitors on its left flank has been halted.

There is now a three-week window to find a resolution between the parties that can permit the formation of a new Executive. Without doubt, there will be pressure on DUP leader Arlene Foster to accept some responsibility for the DUP’s showing. Calls to stand aside are unlikely to subside. Nationalism, and Sinn Féin in particular, has received a strong mandate in advance of these negotiations, as has the middle ground. With everything to play for, just like the election, the drama is far from over.