NORTHERN Irish politics has experienced the greatest upheaval in the history of the Province since its inception in the early 1920s, after an election for a new devolved government brought about by the withdrawal of the Nationalist party Sinn Féin (SF) from partnership with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) over a cash scandal.
An angry electorate, called on to select a new Assembly for Stormont for the second time within a year, inflicted heavy losses on the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which led to the resignation of the UUP leader, Mike Nesbitt, and provided a surge for Sinn Féin which will have a positive impact for that party on both sides of the Border.
The chairman of the DUP, Sir Maurice Morrow, who had 40 years of front-line politics behind him, also lost his seat.
Of the two main factions, Unionists hold a total of 40 seats in the new Assembly, and Nationalists 39, when the smaller parties are included. Significantly, if the DUP and Sinn Féin reach an accommodation (and that is by no means certain), the fact that the DUP does not hold the mandatory 30 seats to impose a veto will encourage gay-marriage and LGBT activists, whose demands have always been shot down by the DUP but have the support of SF.
The count on Friday meant that a DUP majority of ten seats (they had 38 after the last election) was reduced to one (they won 28 seats this time round) as Sinn Féin, who entered the election at 18 and won 27, gaining nine, leaving the two ruling partners neck-and-neck, and offering the nearer prospect of a Nationalist majority in Ulster for the first time. The non-sectarian Social Democratic Labour and the Alliance parties also polled unexpectedly well. The UUP vote fell from 16 to ten.
At the heart of the campaigning, conducted by the two main parties in accordance with sectarian undertones as is usual, was Brexit. A majority of voters in Northern Ireland supported the Remain campaign, pointing, as they saw it, to a hugely negative effect on cross-border trade and the Good Friday Agreement, and to the enormous and detrimental upheaval a Leave result would bring, including the reintroduction of a “hard” border — the only land border between the UK and the EU.
The First Minister in the Assembly and leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, precipitated the election by refusing to step aside for the duration of an investigation into a flawed subsidised renewable-energy “cash for ash” scheme for businesses, similar to that in England, but without a cap on repayments, which could cost the Northern Irish taxpayer £500 million — a mistake on her watch as minister in charge of the scheme.
The Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness (SF), resigned, which precipitated the Assembly’s collapse (News, 13 January).
His successor, Michelle O’Neill (also SF), was this week still calling on Ms Foster to step aside until the preliminary results of the inquiry exonerated her, but Ms Foster has refused to do so. There is now a stalemate.
The parties now have three weeks in which to find a way forward, or the Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, may have to call new elections, or even a return to direct government from Westminster
The rise in the Nationalist vote is seen by some as enough to embolden Sinn Féin to demand a border poll to make a case for a united Ireland. This seems unlikely, however, because, economically at least, there would be little appetite for it in the Republic — or indeed among the overall electorate in Northern Ireland.