Dr Charles Larkin is Director of Research at the University of Bath Institute for Policy Research (IPR).
The Northern Ireland Assembly elections were held on the same day as the local government elections in Great Britain. While it was widely expected that Boris Johnson’s Conservative party would take heavy losses in the local elections, Northern Ireland was divided along different lines.
The Northern Ireland elections did not concern themselves with the various scandals of the Johnson administration. Nationalist Sinn Féin focused its election campaign on the cost of living, and the Unionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) focused on the Northern Ireland Protocol and the legacy of Brexit.
The arrangements of the Good Friday Agreement requires that the two largest parties enter government together, with the leader of largest holding the post of First Minister. Since 1998, this has been held by a Unionist politician - first the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and subsequently by the DUP. Moderate nationalist and unionist parties, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and UUP, have struggled against the more polarised Sinn Féin and DUP in recent years and this election was no different.
Importantly parties that are not aligned to the ‘constitutional question’ of the future of a united Ireland have made significant headway in this election. The Alliance Party is not aligned along the Unionist/Nationalist, Catholic/Protestant divide and is primarily concerned with ‘bread and butter’ issues facing the citizens of Northern Ireland. Their first-preference vote share has risen 4.47% since the last Assembly election. To put this in context, first preference vote shares have changed since 2016:
- TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) (Unionist): +5.07% (7.6% vote share)
- Alliance (non-aligned): +4.47% (13.5% vote share)
- Aontú (Nationalist): +1.5% (1.5% vote share)
- Sinn Féin (Nationalist): +1.1% (29.0% vote share)
- DUP (Unionist): -6.73% (21.3% vote share)
- SDLP (Nationalist): -2.88% (9.1% vote share)
- UUP (Unionist): -1.69% (11.2% vote share)
- PBP (People Before Profit) (non-aligned): -0.62% (1.1% vote share)
- Green (non-aligned): -0.40% (1.9% vote share)
Source: Irish Times & BBC
The election had some surprising losses with Nichola Mallon of the SDLP losing her seat in North Belfast and Claire Bailey, Leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, losing her seat in South Belfast.
The DUP’s vote was weakened by the split of the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) from DUP, which is demanding that the UK government unilaterally abandon the Northern Ireland protocol as it is ‘damaging’ to the union. This split within the Unionist community, and the cost of living crisis brought about by increased energy costs, redirected voter preferences, making Sinn Féin the largest party by seats, with 27, followed by the DUP with 25.
The Assembly rules allow for a six-month period of deliberation for government formation. At present the ability to form an assembly lies in the hands of the DUP leader Jeffery Donaldson, who must also determine if he takes up his Assembly seat in favour of his Westminster MP seat, an outcome which is not seen as a foregone conclusion. Donaldson has made it clear that the DUP will only return to government once the Northern Ireland Protocol has been addressed by the UK government. But the DUP’s weakened position is just one side of the coin.
At the same time, there is much made of the popularity of Sinn Féin across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and with that the possibility of a so-called “Border Poll”, a feature of the Good Friday Agreement that would enable the island of Ireland to come under a Dublin government. The structure of that government is very roughly sketched in the Good Friday Agreement but much of what that would mean for the day-to-day operation of government North and South remains unclear.
The Irish Department of Taoiseach (Ireland’s Cabinet Office) created the ‘Shared Island Initiative’ to investigate how to fashion a new post-Brexit relationship with Northern Ireland. As the ability to call a Border Poll lies in the gift of the Northern Ireland Secretary, it is unlikely to happen within the lifetime of the Tory government in London given the strong congratulatory message to Sinn Féin from the Scottish Government. In Dublin, Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has already called for a Citizens’ Assembly on a united Ireland to craft the necessary constitutional referendum question that would need to be put to the citizens of the Republic.
Sinn Féin is a party on a pathway to government in Dublin as well. According to the Irish Sunday Independent poll for 8 May 2022, Sinn Féin would return 34% of the vote, with the ruling parties of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Green Party returning 23%, 16% and 3% respectively. Opposition left parties, such as Labour, Social Democrats and Solidarity/People Before Profit returning 4% each. The issue exercising both sides of the border is the cost of living. In the Republic, the ongoing housing crisis, a legacy of the 2008-10 crash, is the second most important issue and is part of the upsurge in support for Sinn Féin and its leader Mary Lou McDonald.
Sinn Féin’s southern support is skewed in demographics and class. According to an earlier Irish Times IPSOS poll (14 April 2022) Sinn Féin support is concentrated in Dublin with the under 35 demographic and in the C2, D and E social classes. The age cohort is the most interesting as it represents the demographic that is most consistently excluded from the housing market on the grounds of affordability and one that has grown up without the backdrop of the Troubles to colour their view of Sinn Féin.
The two Irish civil war parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, now in an uneasy coalition, have much different support bases, with Fine Gael voter profiles made up of A, B, and C1 class voters. Fianna Fáil, worryingly for its future, has the most support in the over 65s and amongst farmers. The other coalition member, the Green Party, has a profile similar to Fine Gael but dominated by Dublin and voters under 25.
At present the Dublin government is representative of a wealthier, older Dublin-centric group with a supporting pool of ‘strong farmers’. Sinn Féin’s vote lies in a younger Dublin and commuter belt pool that is less well-off and feeling the pinch of housing and the cost of living. The coalition leader at present, Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin, has strong approval ratings (51% according to the same poll) but is due to step down in favour of Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar in December 2022.
What this change, along with a wider cabinet reshuffle, will do to the overall political performance of the coalition with respect to Sinn Féin is yet to be seen but to keen observers, such as the popular economist David McWilliams, the dysfunction of the property market and the acute nature of the housing crisis will drive voters into the arms of Sinn Féin, undoing Fine Gael in the same way the housing crash of 2008 undid Fianna Fáil.
This means that within the next 36 months it is a real possibility that Sinn Féin will be in power in Belfast and Dublin under the unified leadership of Mary Lou McDonald. While it is unlikely that a border poll would happen within the next few years, the way of doing business will change as Sinn Féin’s leadership under the Ard Chomhairle seeks to ensure that key policy objectives inching Belfast and Dublin towards a united Ireland are taken.
For the uninitiated, the Ard Chomhairle is the de facto party leadership of Sinn Féin, which has a reputation for being a ‘shadowy’ body with links to the IRA according to the Irish Times and Irish Independent. So, what does this mean for the weekend’s results in Northern Ireland? It is still trapped in the past.
While Great Britain, most especially England and Wales, still speaks of left/right politics, Northern Ireland is still dominated by its past, a political system that is backward looking and fixated on binary divides based on sectarianism and the need to be a member of an identifiable tribe. Although there is a growing proportion of people moving outside of tribal parties towards non-aligned parties, such as Alliance, the challenge is if the structure of the Northern Irish Assembly will allow that middle ground to flourish or force this electorate back.
Anna Mercer in testimony to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement debate (Tuesday, 13 Jul 2021) highlighted this ongoing problem in Northern Ireland:
“Mark Durkan famously referred to the ‘ugly scaffolding’ of the Good Friday Agreement when describing some of the safeguards installed to protect against abuses, such as community designation, a lack of opposition and the petition of concern. Over the years, we have seen agreements reached, including the St. Andrew's Agreement, Stormont House Agreement and New Decade, New Approach, which have dealt with some of the aspects that have bottle-necked our politics. Each of these has responded to a specific crisis. They have been reactive rather than proactive or strategic. They have been subject to political negotiations and horse-trading. These are not the optimal conditions under which we should be reviewing our institutions. We need to put some oxygen back into this debate, do it away from a crisis, and review the Northern Ireland Act in its entirety to ensure that institutions are fit for purpose in a modern and evolving post-conflict society?”
Some of the more cynical commentators have already said that progress to a functioning executive will be unlikely without interventions from Dublin and London but there is always the possibility of fashioning a new scaffolding that will support a non-sectarian Northern Ireland.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.