Back to the Ballot: the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly Elections

13 February 2017

Northern Ireland goes to the polls again on 2 March. The devolved government faces enormous challenges – Brexit, widespread disillusionment with the parties on offer and a power-sharing structure that arguably inhibits progress. Yet, says Annabelle de Heus, little is expected to change. Northern Ireland is gripped by political stasis.

On 2 March, voters in Northern Ireland will once again go to the polls. The number of seats up for grabs is smaller this time: 90 Members of the Legislative Assembly will be elected instead of the 108 chosen in May 2016. Stormont politics, as ever, is complex and multifaceted. How did we get here?

Another breaking point: why the government fell

The deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned in January over the fallout of the Renewable Heat Incentive and in protest at DUP leader Arlene Foster’s refusal to step aside over the botched green energy scheme. Explaining his resignation, McGuinness described what he deemed the DUP’s ‘shameful disrespect’ towards sections of the population of Northern Ireland, and stubbornness towards dealing with the past. It was hardly the first upheaval for Stormont. Crisis after crisis has threatened the survival of the power-sharing government. At least two of them - the Welfare Budget and the controversial issue of how to deal with the past - brought the fragile government to the brink of collapse in 2014 and 2015.

Yet for all the problems, any drastic change in the composition of Stormont looks highly unlikely. Polling is scarce in Northern Ireland, but such voting intention figures as we do have appear to bear this out. A LucidTalks poll (26-28 January) found voting intentions remarkably stable since last year’s elections. The biggest movers are the DUP, who are down 3.3 percentage points on their vote share last year. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein are up 1.1%, the Ulster Unionist Party by 1.3% and Alliance by 1.9%. The other parties’ vote shares have shifted less than a percentage point since last year.

The departure of Martin McGuinness will likely be the most noticeable change to the face of Sinn Féin and the executive office. Michelle O’Neill will be taking his place as either deputy first minister or first minister. As with the appointment of Mary Lou McDonald in the Republic of Ireland, it signifies a much clearer break away from the paramilitary past of the party. Although McGuinness, who has been visibly unwell, was praised for his good relationship with Ian Paisley and his positive and crucial impact on the peace process of Northern Ireland, there was little love lost between him and Arlene Foster. So the new leadership may at least benefit that relationship - as we will undoubtedly see another Sinn Féin/DUP coalition.

Over the next few weeks, we can expect yet more ‘know thy enemy’ campaigning. The DUP’s campaign will scaremonger about the possibility of a Sinn Féin First Minister, while Sinn Féin’s strategy will major on DUP party corruption and a continuing failure to deal with the past. This is despite the fact that both parties have equal power in the executive office. As for the way local constituencies will vote in March, expect few surprises. The DUP will most likely lose a few seats - notably that of the former speaker of the Assembly, Robin Newton, in East Belfast. The fact that fewer seats are up for grabs this time could harm the mid-sized parties (Alliance, Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)). Given the speed with which these elections were called, however, it is difficult to obtain extensive polling data, and therefore hard to predict exactly how the crises of the past year will play out.

The biggest – and simultaneously unlikely – outcome would be for the DUP to fall below the threshold for a petition of concern. This is the mechanism that enables a community to exercise a veto over legislation if its MLAs agree. Despite the reduction in seats, the threshold for bringing a petition of concern remains at 30 seats. Were the DUP to fall below that tally, no single party would have the opportunity to exercise the veto - which could significantly benefit political decision-making. The vote to legalise gay marriage, for example - something that a majority of voters in Northern Ireland have been in favour of - would no longer need a cross-community majority to pass. Negotiations on a whole range of challenges would be similarly eased. Reversely, if Sinn Fein manages to benefit over the fallout of the RHI crisis and gain seats, it may for the first time be able to launch a petition of concern.

Turnout in Northern Ireland was low in 2016, at a mere 54%. It may well fall even further this time around, reflecting increasing disillusionment in Northern Ireland with ‘Green and Orange’ voting. In the most recent Northern Ireland life and times survey, 65% of respondents said that different parties in Northern Ireland did not work together either at all or ‘not very much’ to solve the problems that Northern Ireland faces. But this impasse is almost impossible to change under the mandatory power-sharing system. Although it was a necessary precondition to achieve relative peace, it increasingly feels like an obstacle that Northern Ireland is unable to overcome on its path to progress. In the case of Stormont, recurring crises and early elections, or the threat thereof, are becoming the rule rather than exception. Although the Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire sees no alternative to the current power-sharing institutions, their survival may become an ever more pressing issue. Given the depth and breadth of the issues that need to be discussed before the next coalition can start work, post-election negotiations may put Brokenshire’s resilience and that of the Northern Irish parties to the test.

And while Northern Ireland has plenty to deal with on its own, Brexit has introduced another problem to the equation in Westminster. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU referendum and several parties in Northern Ireland have raised concerns about the effects of Brexit. The vote was fairly evenly split across the two communities, with Republican/Nationalist groups largely voting in favour of remain, and those on the Unionist/Loyalist side favouring Leave.

However, the recent Supreme Court ruling in Miller concluded that the devolved parts of the UK have no direct say in the triggering of Article 50, and Theresa May has given clear indications that she will not be blocked by the needs of the devolved institutions. Like Gibraltar, Northern Ireland shares a border with an EU member state. Furthermore, the ties between the UK and the Republic of Ireland run deep, not least when it comes to achieving peace and security cooperation between the two countries. The government’s white paper on Brexit says the border should be as ‘seamless and frictionless as possible’ but fails to detail what this will look like. Numerous difficult and potentially damaging negotiations will need to take place. Not only will the return to border control posts damage the economy, it also provides strong symbolic targets for dissident republican paramilitary groups who are still using violence to pursue their goals.

As Alan Whysall wrote on Democratic Audit last month, Northern Ireland will have to change the practice of politics and probably also rethink how the institutions will function in the future. The way in which the power-sharing institutions were designed was a necessary precursor to obtain the relative peace that we see today. But 19 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, they seem to be entrenching the ethnic divides of the past - making identity a bargaining chip that has dominated much of politics since 2007. Although this new election is unlikely to bring about ground-breaking change in the political landscape of Northern Ireland, it is taking place at a crucially important moment when trust between parties is low, but the need for mutual cooperation is urgently needed. The worry is that we will just get more of the same.

See sea-by-seat information about the Northern Ireland Assembly elections on the Democratic Dashboard, here.

Annabelle de Heus (@aldeheus) is a doctoral researcher in Irish republicanism and identity at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham.