06 Mar

2017 NI Assembly Election – The Verdict

Jack Gibson, Account Executive 

On Thursday Northern Ireland went to the polls, in numbers not seen since 1998. And on Friday, the result was an Assembly of a radically different complexion to any since devolution.

It was a resounding blow for the unionist parties. For the first time, unionism does not constitute an overall majority in the Stormont Assembly.

The leader of the UUP, Mike Nesbitt, has already resigned in response. And there appears to be growing disquiet among DUP MLA over Arlene Foster’s leadership of the party – with the Belfast Telegraph reporting that she is facing a “revolt” from over a third of her MLAs.

What is more, unionist parties bore almost the entire brunt of the Assembly’s 18-seat reduction in size. The DUP lost ten seats, and the UUP lost 6 – meanwhile People Before Profit and Sinn Féin lost one each.

Unionists are referring to this as a ‘crisis’.

However, what is perhaps most striking is the sheer electoral strength demonstrated by Sinn Féin. The party managed to find around 34% more voters than they had in 2016, and increased their vote share by 3.9%.

Granted, overall turnout was around 10% higher than last year, but those are still remarkable figures. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the DUP’s behaviour before and during the campaign spurred Sinn Féin activists to trojan efforts to secure votes.

Whether this is sustainable, however, is another matter. This election bucked a long-running trend of declining nationalist turnout in Assembly elections – it remains to be seen if this really is ‘the new normal’ for Sinn Féin.

The nationalist SDLP performed strongly. They managed to hold all 12 of their seats – a net gain – despite their overall vote share dropping by 0.1%.

The party doubtless benefited from a ‘Brexit bump’ – gaining a great deal of support from its very vocal and visible opposition to Brexit.

More impressive was the cross-community Alliance Party. Alliance held all their seats but, just as importantly, came close to picking up seats in constituencies – such as South Down, North Belfast and North Antrim – in which they have rarely threatened before.

The party has been re-invigorated under the leadership of Naomi Long.

Alliance has often come across as being well-meaning, but a bit dull. Long changed this – through a series of fiery performances on broadcast media, she has effectively ‘rebranded’ the party as a strong, credible voice of centrist opposition.

So what is all this likely to mean?

Perhaps the headline story is that the DUP can no longer unilaterally call a Petition of Concern. This mechanism has, since 2007, given the DUP an effective veto on any Assembly business they took exception to.

The mechanism was originally intended as a means to safeguard minority rights within the Assembly. However, it has been used 116 times since 2011 – most recently to block a motion of no confidence in the previous Assembly Speaker (and DUP MLA) Robin Newton – leading to a perception that it was being abused.

Whether the DUP losing its veto will open the door to progressive policies, such as same-sex marriage or abortion law reform, remains uncertain.

It is likely the DUP would still be able to find sufficient conservative support within the chamber to table a Petition of Concern. For example, they could do so with the support of TUV MLA Jim Allister, and UUP MLA Roy Beggs – who on Sunday announced he would sign such a petition to block same sex marriage.

However, for us even to confront such a question, we first need an Executive.

In the lead-up to the Election, most seasoned observers in Belfast said we were heading for direct rule. The DUP and Sinn Féin’s positions were too entrenched for them to be able to work together without losing face.

But all this may have changed.

Sinn Féin’s ‘red line’ demands – Foster stepping down, addressing legacy issues, Irish Language Act etc – have been given more credibility by their stunning electoral performance. And, in turn, the DUP have put out more conciliatory messages since the election – with DUP MP Gavin Robinson even appearing to countenance Arlene Foster not taking the post of the First Minister for a period.

We won’t know until negotiations begin. However, there appears some cause for cautious optimism that our politicians might be able to pull together to form an Executive.

Direct Rule would be a terrible outcome for Northern Ireland’s stability and ongoing prosperity.  If we can avoid it, it will be good news for investors, good news for our public services, and good news for the people of Northern Ireland.

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