After a short election campaign full of tense exchanges and talk of the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement, the results are in. The story from the election is complex but the immediate reaction is the following. Sinn Féin wagered that bringing down the executive, in my view justifiably, would curry favour with the electorate. This shows to have been a correct estimation as the party massively increased their share of the vote Alliance also gained and this is thought to have come from unionists who are disaffected with the DUP.
The results of the election were as follows. The DUP remained the largest party in the Assembly with 28 MLAs, which was 10 seats down from just last year. Sinn Féin also lost a single seat, but their overall vote share increased, hence the media widely reported that it was very much their night. The Ulster Unionists won 10 seats, which is 6 down from the last election. The SDLP and Alliance maintained their 12 and 8 MLAs respectively. The Greens won 2 seats, Traditional Unionist Voice won 1, and the People before Profit Alliance also won 1. Independent candidate Clair Sugden won in East Derry, but has declared herself as a nominal unionist.
The overall number of seats in the election was reduced from 108 to 90, which means that a majority of only 46 is now required to pass legislation. The other implication of this reduction in the number of MLAs is that for the first time since devolution, the self-described unionist parties do not have a majority in the Assembly. 40 MLAs are self-described unionists, 39 are self-described nationalists, and 11 are designated others. It is important that this situation motivates republicans and nationalists to make the case to people for a united Ireland but is done so whilst promoting the idea of cooperation. Without this caveat we risk getting back to a position of confrontation and the prospect of direct rule.
An important think that I believe should be mentioned is Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). During the campaign he made the courageous decision to public endorse the idea of voting across community lines. Following the UUP’s poor performance in the election Nesbitt announced his resignation. I’m fairly confident that me and Mr Nesbitt don’t agree on much, but given how entrenched sectarian divisions are in Northern Ireland I have to commend him for his stance.
The Assembly works on the premise of cooperation and because the two communities are constantly confronting one another, it takes people to change the political culture of the country. Nesbitt tried to do this and, whilst I disagree with him on almost everything he stands for, deserves recognition.
On that point, Northern Ireland will only be able to be consistently governable if politicians at Stormont are willing to work together across community lines. This being the case, it is important that the next Assembly promotes policies that changes the country’s political culture. If political cooperation is to mean anything, the parties in Stormont must create the conditions where inter-community cooperation is the norm.
The top priority of such an approach should be the introduction of secular comprehensive schools. A large basis of the orange-green divide is religious identity, but breaking this link will be a key way of fostering a political atmosphere of cooperation. Even if the students in these schools eventually come to the same political conclusions, voters and politicians alike will be more amenable to cooperation and will not be duped by straw-manning of the other side.
The new power dynamic in Stormont will challenge the parties and the institutions in a way never seen before. It is imperative that a new government is in place in the next few weeks because Northern Ireland faces a number of problems that need addressing. The Good Friday Agreement requires a cross-community government and I would very much like Sinn Féin to work with the UUP, SDLP, and Alliance so that the DUP can be locked out of power.I’m not familiar enough with the legalese around the Good Friday Agreement to know whether or not this is possible, but my understanding was that a government had to be cross community.
There are some structural concerns with this plan, one of which being the petition of concern, but surely if the unionist community wished to initiate a petition of concern the 28 DUP MLAs could sign it and convince 2 UUP MLAs to back them. Indeed because of the diminished power of the DUP in the Assembly, the petition of concern can no longer be abused and weaponised by the party for their own ends.
At the end of the day the people of Northern Ireland have chosen their representatives and as much as I would have wanted a radical left-wing government to have been elected to Stormont this didn’t happen. The legal structures and institutions that are unique to Northern Ireland require co-operation across party and sectarian lines. I sincerely hope that if the DUP can be denied power they should be.The RHI scandal and the contempt for the electorate shown by the party should not be rewarded by Arlene Foster becoming First Minister once again.