Northern Ireland elections took place yesterday for the second time in less than a year. Read more about the significance of the election, its results and the delicate power-sharing arrangement at the centre of politics in Northern Ireland.
On January 16th the UK Government’s Secretary for Northern Ireland made a significant announcement. The Northern Ireland Assembly (NIA) would be dissolved on January 26th in advance of fresh elections on March 2nd. Coming less than a year after the previous elections, the announcement underlined the tenuous position of devolution in Northern Ireland, which aimed to end decades of sectarian violence between unionists and nationalists.
The DUP just held onto its majority by one seat. The results in full:
- Democratic Unionist Party – 28
- Sinn Féin – 27
- Social Democratic & Labour Party – 12
- Ulster Unionist Party – 10
- Alliance Party of Northern Ireland – 8
- Other – 5
Sinn Féin has hailed the result as a “watershed” moment as the DUP no longer has a majority at Stormont, the seat of the Northern Irish Assembly.
Background: Northern Ireland Elections
Since its inception in 1998, the core of the NIA has been its system of power-sharing between unionists and nationalists known as ‘consociationalism’. Easier to understand than it is to pronounce, consociationalism demands that the executive government of Northern Ireland is composed of both unionist and nationalist politicians. To illustrate, the First Minister and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland have exactly the same powers – one must represent a unionist party and the other a nationalist. Furthermore, certain decisions made by the NIA require the support of both political factions. This effectively gives the minority group the right to veto sensitive matters before the assembly. To put it more simply, the NIA only works if both sides agree to make it work.
The breaking down of this agreement is precisely what triggered the announcement of yesterday’s election. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, the leader of the nationalist Sinn Féin party, resigned in January. The resignation came in the wake of a botched renewable energy scheme. Overseen by Arlene Foster, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the scandal cost taxpayers half a billion pounds, and when the controversy was made public in late 2016, Foster, by then First Minister, refused to stand down pending an investigation. Sinn Féin opted not to nominate a replacement for McGuinness and Northern Ireland elections became inevitable.
Candidates & Possible Implications
Arlene Foster remained leader of the DUP in the run-up to the election. Foster’s main opponent coming in the form of Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill. Polls in the lead up to the election suggested the DUP would indeed lose seats in the NIA. There seemed to be two main reasons for this:
- Anger in the electorate as a result of Foster’s handling of the renewable energy scheme
- The DUP’s pro-Brexit stance where 55.8% of the population voted to remain
However, the outcome of this election won’t guarantee stability in Northern Ireland. In the context of both Brexit and simmering tensions between unionists and nationalists, the future of devolution in the region remains very much in the balance.