Assembly Election fundamentally alters NI

The comparative gains for non-Unionists in last week’s Northern Ireland Assembly Elections have changed the political landscape here forever.

The election, under a preferential system called ‘STV’, saw a reduced number of legislators (‘MLAs’) elected, with the 18 constituencies choosing five rather than six members.

Of the 18 seats thus lost, Unionists lost 16, emerging with just 40 out of 90, only one ahead of Nationalists and an overall minority for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland.

The DUP lost just over one percentage point in its vote share, although this was shielded by a marked reduction in the number of candidates from smaller Unionist parties. The result, however, was a loss of ten seats – including incumbents Nelson McCausland (Belfast North), Emma Little Pengelly (Belfast South), Maurice Morrow (Fermanagh/South Tyrone), Brenda Hale (Lagan Valley), Adrian McQuillan (East Londonderry), Philip Logan (North Antrim) and Trevor Clarke (South Antrim) as well as non-incumbents in Belfast East and East Antrim and an undefended seat in North Down. The outcome was 28 seats on 28.1% of the vote.

Sinn Fein gained nearly four points in vote share, to its best share ever in an Assembly Election. This enabled it to maintain all but two of its seats (losing incumbent Oliver McMullan in East Antrim and a seat in Upper Bann) and in fact gain one (Jenna Dolan in Fermanagh/South Tyrone). The party also produced new MLAs replacing retirees at the top of the poll in Foyle and South Down, Elisha McCallion and Sinead Ennis. the outcome was 27 seats on 27.9% of the vote.

The SDLP moved up to third place despite a narrow decline to its worst vote share ever. As expected it lost seats in Fermanagh/South Tyrone (Richie McPhillips) and Belfast West (Alex Attwood), yet it also secured its seat in East Londonderry despite a candidate replacement (through John Dallat) and made last-gasp gains in Upper Bann (Dolores Kelly) and Lagan Valley (Pat Catney). This it returned with as many seats as in the last Assembly, 12 on 11.9% of the vote.

The Ulster Unionists had a disaster. Their vote share was up, though mainly because there were generally fewer Unionists standing overall, and particularly in Greater Belfast where a gain in East Antrim (John Stewart) was off-set by losses in Strangford (Philip Smith) and Lagan Valley (Jenny Palmer). However, away from Greater Belfast the party’s vote fell as between Lough Neagh and the border fully five further seats were lost – incumbents Jo-Anne Dobson (Upper Bann), Danny Kennedy (Newry/Armagh), Sandra Overend (Mid Ulster) and Harold McKee (South Down) fell alongside another loss of a non-incumbent in West Tyrone. Thus the Ulster Unionists return with just 10 seats on 12.9% of the vote.

The Alliance Party picked up its best share in any election since 1987 and retained all its seats, narrowly failing to pick up any further gains. Thus eight members were returned on 9.1% of the vote.

Elsewhere the Green Party saw a small decline in vote share but retained its two seats; People Before Profit lost a seat in Foyle (Eamon McCann) to be reduced to one; and TUV suffered a decline in vote share despite retaining its one seat. Independent Unionist and outgoing Justice Minister Claire Sugden was returned in East Londonderry.

The outcome, therefore, is a much more even Assembly than the one before – and thus one which is more anti-Brexit, more social-liberal, and broadly younger.

The question now is if it will ever sit and, if so, on which terms. The four overall options here are:

  • a deal between the parties enabling the establishment of an Executive before the first meeting on 27 March;
  • an extension in the time allowed for a deal, with civil servants carrying out the administration of services and handed some budgetary powers;
  • no deal and no extension and thus, under the current law, a further election on 4 May;
  • no deal and no extension and a law passed to enable the effective restoration of “Direct Rule” by Ministers appointed by the Conservative Government in London.

These are probably in rough order of likelihood. Absolutely no one serious wants the latter, so it is unlikely; the possibility of a further election has already been noted in the House of Commons by the Secretary of State; the possibility of extension has been put forward publicly by his predecessor; and the potential for a deal exists, even on a temporary basis, since neither main party would really wish to risk a further election.

We shall see!

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