On Thursday probably the most important UK election of 2017 took place, here is a quick guide for those who don’t really follow the convoluted politics in Northern Ireland.
Who are the main parties?
Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement introduced the modern Northern Ireland Assembly, the two largest parties have been the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a unionist, socially conservative party mainly representing more Protestant communities and Sinn Féin, a nationalist, left-wing party historically linked to the IRA with greater support from Catholic communities.
In addition to these parties there are two other large parties, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a more centre-right Unionist party and a more moderate Republican party respectively.
Recently, there has been increasing support for smaller parties not aligned to the traditional Unionist vs Republican debate, mainly the Alliance Party (linked to the Liberal Democrats), the Green Party and the People Before Profit Alliance (which is exactly what it says on the tin!).
Didn’t they just have an election there?
Well, yes. The last election was only ten months ago, since then Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP and First Minister, has been embroiled in the scandal regarding a failed Renewable Heat Incentive plan reported to have wasted £490 million. On her refusal to resign, Sinn Féin withdrew from the power sharing agreement under which Northern Ireland is governed and automatically triggered another election.
What were the results?
With the added spice of a reduction in the number of Assembly seats from 108 to 90, Sinn Féin cut into the DUP’s lead and took 27 seats, only 1 behind the DUP. In addition, the non-aligned parties saw an increase in their support. The results mean that for the first time Unionist parties do not hold the majority in the Assembly, with the seats being split 40 Unionist, 39 Republican and the balance being held by non-aligned parties.
What happens now?
Nobody really knows. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the largest Unionist and Republican parties must form a power sharing government, however Arlene Foster still refusing to step aside as leader of the DUP and Sinn Féin refusing to be part of the government unless the DUP makes “significant changes” there does not seem to be a resolution in sight. If no new government is formed in three weeks then there must either be a new election or direct rule from Westminster will be re-imposed, although the Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire has indicated that this deadline may be extended.
What does this mean?
With no government formed it is difficult to say at this time. However, one of the largest changes is that the DUP can no longer unilaterally trigger a “petition of concern”, the means by which 30 either Unionist or Republican Assembly Members can block any bill. The issue this most affects in Northern Ireland is same-sex marriage, which remains un-recognised in Northern Ireland and a source of great political conflict. In the past 5 years, there have been 5 attempts to pass legislation to recognise it, with it failing every time. On the latest occasion, it was passed by assembly members for the first time but subsequently blocked by a petition of concern by the DUP, which they have promised to continue to do. To do so in the new Assembly would require support from the Ulster Unionist Party.
In addition controversial plans to introduce the Irish language are likely to gain support with the increased Nationalist representation. However, it is interesting to note that although Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU referendum last year by 56% there was no great migration to Republicanism, unlike some of the predictions made before the referendum.