Today (Friday 13th May), newly elected and returned legislators head to the seat of government in Belfast to nominate a Speaker and register their political affiliation (Unionist, Nationalist or Other) in preparation for a new Stormont Assembly term. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will be asked to officially nominate their respective candidates for the posts of First and Deputy First Ministers.
As the DUP has already signalled that the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, will have to significantly alter the UK Government’s tact with the EU on the Northern Irish Protocol for them to re-enter government, the formation of a new Executive is unlikely by this time next week. That is unless, as rumoured in newspaper headlines, the UK Foreign Secretary and Attorney General are prepared to break an international treaty with the EU help to bring the DUP back to the Northern Irish political institutions.
The results from last week’s Assembly elections generated one of the most historic moments in Northern Ireland’s 101-year political history. Taking almost two full days of vote counting, several political heavyweights anxiously waited to see whether their time as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) was coming to an end, while fresh faces were elected for the very first time.
The headline-grabbing news from this election was that Sinn Féin, widely thought of as the political wing of the IRA, emerged as the largest party in Stormont with 27 seats out of a total of 90 – holding onto all of its seats from the last election in 2017 and now entitled to the position of First Minister meaning that the second party, under the terms of the powersharing arrangement, must take the Deputy First Minister post. While both the posts have equal powers, symbolically the position of First Minister is important. A republican Northern Irish First Minister to mirror Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland and a nationalist party now with the largest share of voice in what has been a unionist dominated state since 1921 is the first of many significant outcomes from this election.
This result has been less than ideal for the presiding Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). It is fair to assess that across the board, unionism struggled in this election with four fewer unionist-identifying MLAs being returned by the electorate. Unionist parties’ endorsement for Brexit in a province which voted in favour of remaining in the EU, compounded by the mismanagement of the negotiated Northern Irish Protocol with former Prime Minister May, greatly undermined the electoral aptitude of the DUP and the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).
Sinn Féin’s win does not mean that nationalism is on the rise, however. While the party kept all of its 27 MLAs, the other major nationalist force, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), lost four seats from its previously held 12; this will be the first time that the party finds itself on the Opposition bench since it helped to broker the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 which established devolution. A two seat majority for unionist supporting MLAs means that although unionism is in retreat and fractured, nationalism is not making significant gains to warrant a border poll in order to reunite with the Republic of Ireland. There is, however, another political force chipping away at both ideological camps.
The only party to grow its seats in this election was the Alliance Party, which jumped from eight to 17 seats owing to the so-called ‘Alliance surge’ – a trend, starting in 2017, which has seen the liberal party perform well in local, national, and European elections and garner momentum from voters who do not identify with the traditional tribal politics of unionism and nationalism.
When and if a new Executive can be formed, we can expect politics to look very different. With Alliance now a formidable, non-identifying power bloc in the Assembly, the third-largest party may find itself with more bargaining power than it has ever experienced before – being able to bring forward and enact more progressive legislation, such as its Green New Deal. Sinn Féin will also be keen to activate a pot of money to curb the cost of living crisis felt by many families, while there is a cross-party consensus to fix the country’s health service and tackle waiting lists. If there is one certainty from this election, it is that this will feel like a very different Assembly for Northern Ireland.