The recent snap election in Northern Ireland gave Sinn Féin a tactical advantage over the Unionist party, their former coalition partners. A republican majority now outnumbers a unionist presence in Stormont for the first time. The election was called after a renewable energy scandal engulfed the government. A republican majority government raises questions on whether we will see a unified Ireland further down the road. In the short term how it will impact the conversation of a hard or soft border when the UK leaves the European Union.
The lead up to the election
The run-up to the election was dominated by a renewable energy scandal and calls for a Ministers resignation. The renewable energy initiative aimed to cover the cost of installing renewable energy in small businesses and homes. The cost is currently projected to overrun by 400 – 500 million.
First Minister Arlene Foster (DUP) found herself at the centre of this storm as she was Minister for Enterprise and Investment at the time the policy was rolled out. Later revelations revealed that the DUP leader was warned about this several years ago yet no action was taken. She resisted calls to resign and pledged to stay in government to solve this problem. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (Sinn Féin) resigned in early January out of protest of Foster’s intransigence. Sein Fein refused to appoint a successor and an election was called to end the political deadlock.
Northern Irish political system and parties
Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly was created in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and sought to end the conflict that had gripped Ireland for generations. A unicameral institution made up of 90 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) who are elected by using the single transferable vote system. The election this year was the first with a reduced number of 90 seats to be won, in 2016 108 seats were contested.
Political parties in Northern Ireland can be divided into two main camps, republican and unionist. A Northern Ireland government must be made up of representatives from both groups. Sinn Féin, who campaign for a united Ireland won 27 seats. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lost seats but remain the biggest party with 28 seats. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) won 12 while the Ulster Unionist party (UUP) won 10. The UUP leader Mike Nesbitt resigned in the wake of his party being unable to make any significant gains. The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI) gained 8.8% of the vote for the first time and can now be recognised as an official political party.
The recent election saw a rise in voter turnout with 64.7% whereas the year before the number was 54.9%. The number of female ministers increased by 50%.
The loss in votes for the DUP can be attributed to a number of factors. They were punished by the heating scandal made them look inept while Fosters unwillingness to resign didn’t help matters. The referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU returned a firm decision to remain from Northern Irish citizens. A victory for the Leave campaign has left people on either side of the border concerned about how Ireland will look post-Brexit. Some believe it could push the North and South toward a unified Ireland in the future.
Discussions on how a new government will be formed are presently ongoing and will be discussed in a later article. At present, the divisions on Arlene Fosters position continue to be a stumbling block in negotiations. If no agreement can be reached a new election will have to be called.
Image rights: Flickr @ Sinn Féin