Northern Ireland faces fraught fortnight

Written By: John Coulter
Published: March 6, 2017 Last modified: March 6, 2017

Northern Ireland’s second Stormont poll within a year has produced Sinn Fein’s best election result since the 1918 Westminster General Election since it scooped up most of Ireland’s seats when the entire island was under British rule.

In the new-look 90-seat Assembly, the Democratic Unionists ended up with 28 seats – one more than Sinn Fein, emphasising the stereotype that the two ‘supposed extremes’ in unionism and nationalism reign supreme and the big winner in voting trends is the Orange/Green sectarian polarisation.

Talks to try and save Stormont begin during the incoming weeks and the new MLAs have around three weeks to agree a new devolved administration, otherwise the spotlight shifts firmly onto Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire.

He has a series of choices – extend the timeframe for talks; call yet another Stormont poll; a return to Direct Rule from London; and, in a worst case scenario for Unionism, joint authority of Northern Ireland by both the Dail in Dublin and Westminster.

More dangerously for Unionists, the outcome has seen more nationalists at the polling booths for the first time since the state was formed in the 1920s.

The Ulster Unionist Party – which dominated Unionist politics since its formation in 1905 until 2003 when it was beaten by the DUP – has seen its representation reduced to fringe status in the Assembly.

Down from 16 seats to 10 in less than a year, the result forced leader Mike Nesbitt (pictured) to resign the helm. His cross-community policy of urging UUP voters to transfer to the moderate nationalist SDLP backfired dramatically with significant representative losing their seats.

The talks to save Stormont will focus around devolution, equality issues – especially same sex marriage – and the legacy of the conflict which claimed some 3,000 lives.

If there was Direct Rule, these issues would be solved overnight as Westminster would impose a legislative solution – and that would include biting austerity cuts in health and education.

The Stormont outcome also has serious electoral implications for the Republic. Sinn Fein has got to power on the back of a snap poll; while it is a minority party in Dublin’s Leinster House, could it benefit from a Northern ‘bounce’ factor by forcing a snap Dail poll?

Given the pressure on the Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s majority coalition Fine Gael party, such a snap election could leave Sinn Fein as the minority partner in a new Southern government with the main opposition party, Fianna Fail.

As for Unionism, it needs to face the bitter medicine of what a generation of internecine fighting has thrown up. Structurally, it will need to form a single Unionist party to represent all shades of pro-Union opinion.

A start may be an electoral pact between the UUP and DUP, leading to the formation of the successful Unionist Coalition of the early 1970s which represented up to five different Unionist parties.

The centre ground held firm with Alliance retaining its eight seats and the Green Party holding its two.

Structurally, while unionism and nationalism expands their appeal to voters, it will mean the emergence of pressure groups within Sinn Fein and the DUP to take account of those views. That could see those parties develop along mainland Britain lines where Tory and Labour contains various pressure groups.

As for the moderate nationalist SDLP with its 12 seats, perhaps a merger with Fianna Fail is the way forward?

About John Coulter

John Coulter is a journalist for the Daily Star