The Northern Ireland Assembly held elections on Thursday and the final results have been announced. Unlike other pieces I have written about the elections in other parts of the UK, I want to focus on themes that emerged rather than breaking down the election along party lines. The headline is that that the DUP remains the largest party and Sinn Féin finished second. This will probably result in a similar political settlement as before the election, which may well lead to the same stalemate, but the specific results show that there is a growing hostility towards the traditional parties.
The results in Northern Ireland were interesting because the traditional parties all lost votes, even though in some cases the number of MLAs for the parties remained unchanged. The DUP retained all 38 of its MLAs, Sinn Féin lost one seat taking their total to 28, the UUP retained its 16 representatives, the SDLP lost two MLAs leaving them with 12, and Alliance kept all 8 of its MLAs. However all these five mainstream parties lost a share of their vote: DUP -0.8%; Sinn Féin -2.9%; UUP -0.7%; SDLP -2.2%; and Alliance -0.7%. It is notable that the left-wing parties lost a significantly larger vote share than their right-wing opponents, but all of the mainstream parties, including Alliance who vehemently state their agnosticism on the Union, lost votes to smaller parties.
The vote of minor parties rose almost across the board. The Green Party’s vote rose by 1.8%, the People Before Profit Alliance’s vote was up by 1.2%, the TUV picked up an additional 0.9%, UKIP’s vote increased by 0.8%, the Progressive Unionist Party’s vote increased by 0.6%, the Conservative Party’s vote increased by 0.4%, and the Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee’s vote went up by 0.2%. The fact that literally all parties other than the mainstream five had their vote share increase illustrates that there is a growing dissatisfaction with the Stormont status quo.
The biggest movement of support came on the Left, as the vote share lost by Sinn Féin was greater than the combination of the lost vote share from the DUP and the UUP combined. The same is true of the SDLP’s vote share. There seems to be a desire in Northern Ireland to move away from the status quo and the reason I believe that this is happening primarily on the Left is that the nationalist/republican vote, which is overwhelmingly left-wing, is in the minority and therefore can diversify away from the two main parties. However if the combined vote of the DUP and UUP were to collapse without the emergence of another unionist party, there would be calls for a referendum on Irish unification. From a unionist perspective this cannot be allowed to happen and I believe that this is one of the reasons behind this realignment.
There are other reasons behind this. There could have been a perception of the SDLP and Sinn Féin being obstructionists as Stormont, or a whole host of local issues all coinciding to produce this result, but I do feel that the rise of smaller left-wing parties is contributing to this decline in the vote for the traditional parties. The declining vote of unionist parties may be related to general apathy towards the main Stormont parties, or a statement of opposition to certain policies of these groups. Once again, I am unsure.
In the long-run I believe that this realignment is a good thing. There are many people who believe that the histories of the SDLP and Sinn Féin are irreconcilable with their own political identities and thus prevents nationalist/republican causes being listen to. If a political party that supported Irish unification was established with a distinctly left-wing message, akin to Sinn Féin but without the historical baggage, I believe people would be more willing to listen to what the politics of such a party were on day-to-day issues.