Today, Northern Irish Assembly Elections have taken place. However, voters may be suffering from election fatigue for the last Assembly Election was a mere ten months ago. While that was a scheduled election, this latest round of voting was triggered by a profound collapse in the power-sharing process between the lead unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and its Irish nationalist counterpart, Sinn Fein.
As part of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which set up the system of Northern Irish power-sharing government, the positions of First Minister of Northern Ireland and Deputy Minister are interlocking. In other words, should one of the holders of the two positions resign and the party to which they belong not nominate a replacement in the allotted time period, Assembly elections are called by the UK government’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
This is precisely what happened in January when Martin McGuinness, the then leader of Sinn Fein, resigned as Deputy First Minister and his party proceeded to offer no replacement.
Ostensibly, McGuinness resigned due to DUP leader and Northern Irish First Minister, Arlene Foster, refusing to temporarily stand down while an investigation was carried out into green energy scheme, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). Summarising this, Foster was as Minister for Trade in 2012, responsible for overseeing implementation of this initiative designed to increase consumption of heat from renewable sources in Northern Ireland. A whistleblower and an investigation into the scheme in February 2016 following a recent surge in demand, exposed its financial and administrative shortcomings. It has been nicknamed the ‘cash-for-ash’ scandal, with it projected to exceed its original budget by £490 million.
In reality, though, the RHI scandal was merely the coup de grâce to the survival of the power-sharing government between the DUP and Sinn Fein, as the rancour between the two parties was already heated following disagreement over a number of major issues.
Firstly, Northern Ireland remains the only nation in the UK to have not legislated for same-sex marriage. The attempted passing of it in the Assembly in 2015 resulted in the unusual situation of a marginal majority in favour, including the predominantly Catholic-supported Sinn Fein, but the predominantly Protestant-supported DUP helping block it. Brexit saw further divisions emerge with the DUP campaigning for leaving the EU while Sinn Fein were firmly pro-Remain. In the end, Northern Ireland overall voted to Remain, but the DUP do not see this as meriting pushing for continued membership of the single market. Finally, a recent initial plan by the DUP to cancel funding for an Irish language bursary provoked a strong reaction from nationalist Sinn Fein.
Sadly, and perhaps inevitably due to the generally combative nature of electoral campaigns, conciliatory rhetoric has not been to the fore of late between Sinn Fein and the DUP. Commenting on Sinn Fein’s central manifesto demand of an Irish Language Act, Foster rejected this, commenting that ‘If you feed a crocodile, it will keep coming back for more’. Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein, retorted ‘see you later, alligator’, while DUP MP Sammy Wilson, when asked whether he agreed with the caption on a Belfast mural of ‘IRA-Sinn Fein-ISIS, no difference’, replied ‘I do. Yes of course I do’.
The junior unionist and nationalist parties, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) respectively, as well as the neutral Alliance Party, have all called for greater cross-community cooperation. SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, has warned that ‘it is the very idea of power-sharing in the North, which is now at risk’, while his UUP counterpart, Mike Nesbitt, took the unprecedented step of confirming his second preference vote would go to the SDLP.
The complicated Good Friday Agreement, designed to prevent any one side of unionists and nationalists feeling disadvantaged, may well be revised soon. Currently, most votes in the Assembly require what is known as a ‘parallel majority’, ensuring strong nationalist and unionist support for a measure. This cross-community voting system applies to votes on some matters as an obligatory rule, but can also be prompted on any vote by so-called ‘petitions of concern’, a tactic the DUP deployed when blocking same-sex marriage. Smaller parties, like Alliance, want this to be removed and a simple ‘supermajority’ of MLAs, regardless of their unionist/nationalist position, required for legislation to pass. Meanwhile, Arlene Foster has stated during the election campaign that she would like to scrap the ‘petition of concern’ as well.
The election is based on the proportional single transferable vote (STV) electoral system. Current polling places the DUP and Sinn Fein, the latter now led by Michelle O’Neill, on level pegging, some way ahead of the other parties. If this proves correct on polling day, Northern Ireland will be heading for a decidedly uncertain period of negotiations to form a new executive. If no agreement is reached between the two largest parties within 3 weeks, direct rule from Westminster will become a distinct possibility.
The Northern Irish Assembly’s teetering on the brink of collapse is made all the more desperate a situation by Brexit, for as the prospect of passport controls on the border with Ireland looms ever larger, now more than ever is the Assembly’s voice needed.