9 May 2022

Forget talk of a ‘seismic’ shock, not much in Northern Ireland has actually changed

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On Saturday evening, 48 hours after the polls closed, counting at Northern Ireland’s Stormont assembly election was finally complete. The result was described by some commentators as a ‘seismic’ shock. But once the initial overstatement and hyperbole were cleared out the way, it was striking how little had actually changed.

Sinn Fein topped the poll for the first time, claiming a symbolic win for Irish nationalism, but the party failed to add to its 27 assembly seats and its vote rose by only 1%. In contrast, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lost almost 7% of its support. In the end, though, it returned 25 MLAs, a drop of just three. 

Many of its former supporters opted for the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) this time. This fiercely anti-Protocol party, led by the formidable barrister Jim Allister, surged at the DUP’s expense, but ultimately could not add to the one seat it held previously. The Stormont Assembly is elected using the proportional single transferable vote system, which means that voters’ second, third or fourth ‘preferences’ often turn out to be more decisive than their first preference. The TUV failed to attract enough of these ‘transferred’ votes when rival candidates were eliminated.

At the end of the count, unionist parties, who favour Northern Ireland remaining in the UK, lost three MLAs overall, finishing up with 37. Nationalists, who want the province to be absorbed by the Irish Republic, were down four seats, at 35.

The only unequivocal winner was the Alliance party, which more than doubled its number of MLAs, claiming 13.5% of the vote. Officially, Alliance is ‘unaligned’ on the constitutional issue, but it wants to keep Northern Ireland tied as closely as possible to the EU, even if that comes at the expense of its links to the rest of the UK. 

This complicated picture was not reflected in some of the early responses to the election result, which veered from hysterical to wildly inappropriate. Piers Morgan tweeted that Sinn Fein’s success marked the ‘impending and I think now inevitable collapse of the United Kingdom’. Meanwhile, The Times ran a story celebrating the journey of the republican party’s ‘northern leader’, Michelle O’Neill, headlined, ‘From pregnant schoolgirl to Northern Ireland’s next leader’.

This framed the achievements of a party that takes its directions from the IRA’s ‘army council’, and celebrates terrorists who murdered their neighbours, as a story of female empowerment. The Times, though, was surpassed by Susan McKay in The Guardian, who claimed: ‘A majority of Northern Ireland’s people has voted to have as first minister a republican whose party wants a united Ireland,’ before noting in the very next sentence that ‘Sinn Fein gained an astonishing 29% of first preference votes’.

From a pro-Union viewpoint, the election result was obviously disappointing, and Sinn Fein performed relatively well, but these wild takes lacked context or perspective. The republican party has not ‘taken power’ in Northern Ireland, as some headlines suggested. It holds under a third of Assembly seats and edged ahead of the DUP in a consociational, power-sharing system. It was already one of the two pivotal power-brokers in the province, alongside the DUP, and has been since 2007.

Voters did not demand a border poll or swing toward parties that favour Northern Ireland’s destruction. Sinn Fein’s support grew slightly, but its nationalist rival, the SDLP, was decimated. Unionists still have more seats than nationalists in the Assembly and they gained a higher proportion of first preference votes.

In any case, republicans deliberately played down the significance of the constitutional issue during this campaign, concentrating instead on the cost of living and funding for the health service. Sinn Fein and its supporters probably will demand an early border poll, but that is more to do with creating another long-running grievance that it can nurture, rather than a realistic expectation that it would win.

The election has not changed or resolved the Northern Ireland Protocol issue either. The drop in the DUP’s first preference vote was similar to the TUV’s increase in support. Many unionist voters expressed their anger and frustration at the sea border by voting for a party that takes a harder line on the Protocol, even though that risked allowing Sinn Fein to top the poll.

The DUP’s leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, insists that his party will not nominate a deputy first minister and restore the power-sharing executive at Stormont unless the Protocol is changed radically. The Government previously hinted that tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech would include a bill that empowered ministers to override aspects of the sea border directly or promised to protect the Belfast Agreement ‘in its entirety’, but has since cast doubt on this prospect.

After a bruising election, and the comparative success of the TUV, Donaldson is now unlikely to accept vague promises to deal with the Protocol. His party would already be taking a political risk by nominating a deputy first minister, who would officially have powers ‘co-equal’ to the first minister, but could be portrayed as ‘serving under’ a republican.

Sinn Fein’s success is certainly a blow to unionists’ morale and it challenges them to promote Northern Ireland’s place in the UK more positively and compellingly in the future. At the same time, the idea that Ulster’s politics have been ‘changed utterly’ by this result is a colossal exaggeration.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.