Northern Ireland has experienced a political earthquake after an extraordinary election saw Sinn Fein surge and unionists lose their majority for the first time in history. A return to power-sharing is now questionable, as Sinn Fein has previously refused to rule along with the Democratic Unionists and now wields even more power at Stormont.
Sinn Fein now has 27 seats in the Northern Irish Assembly, just one fewer than the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which now has 28 seats. The DUP’s losses mean it no longer has enough seats to invoke a veto mechanism known as a “petition of concern”, recently used to block marriage equality for same sex couples.
LGBT activists have welcomed the result which looks set to herald the extension of marriage equality in Northern Ireland, four years after it was legalised in the rest of the UK. If the DUP form a grand coalition with other evangelical Christians in the Ulster Unionist Party and the Traditional Unionist Voice, blocking the reform is still possible but will be harder to enact.
The extraordinary Sinn Fein surge came after the party capitalised on anti-DUP sentiment caused by their leader’s involvement in a major financial scandal.
Arlene Foster, who was also Northern Ireland First Minister, was accused of mishandling a public scheme which cost the taxpayer £480m. She denies any wrongdoing and refused to step aside pending an independent inquiry. As a result, Sinn Féin walked away from power sharing in January, triggering the election.
A perfect storm of anti-corruption sentiment and growing angst about whether Brexit will lead to a hard border between the North and South of Ireland has also fuelled support for the hard left Republican Party.
In addition to the DUP’s losses, the UUP also suffered badly at the ballot box, plunging unionism into a period of deep uncertainty.
The UUP represents a more moderate, centrist form of Unionism, with many members supporting LGBT rights and limited relaxation of the country’s abortion ban. The party ran a campaign based on tolerance and partnership with nationalists, citing concern about apparent DUP corruption and waste. However, the party failed to win moderate unionists’ support, who instead appear to be migrating to the liberal Alliance and Green parties. Admitting it had been a “terrible night for the party”, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt announced his resignation, saying “the buck stops here”.
In another boon for Irish nationalism, the moderate, centre-left Social Democratic and Labour Party made small but unexpected gains. In the staunchly loyalist constituency Lagan Valley, Pat Catney secured a seat in the final hours, thanks to support from former UUP voters.
Following Sinn Fein’s success, the future of power-sharing in Northern Ireland remains unclear. The party triggered the election after refusing to share power yet the DUP’s Ms Foster is resolute that she will remain in position.
The parties will now begin a period of intense negotiations in the hope of securing an agreement to return to power sharing. If not, devolution will be formally suspended for the first time in a decade, requiring Northern Ireland to be run from directly London for an indefinite period of time.
Few in Northern Ireland would wish to see this happen, given that it would be widely interpreted as a backwards step in the peace process. Similarly, the Conservatives in Westminster have expressed little interest in governing Northern Ireland and would most likely view it a cumbersome burden and distraction at a time of intense Brexit negotiations.
However, neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein are likely to back down; direct rule is now a credible, if not inevitable, threat.
With Sinn Fein’s hand strengthened more than at any other time in Northern Irish history, the party wields considerable weight at Stormont and will most likely want to flex this muscles as much as possible.
Northern Ireland felt a major earthquake yesterday. Now it must brace itself for many aftershocks in the weeks and months to come.
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