Arrogance, Borders and Crocodiles: the ‘ABC’ of Northern Ireland’s Snap Election

Campaigns for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections are grinding into gear. Apathy is allowed - this election comes less than a year after the last one, under a system that delivers similar results time after time. Don’t switch off yet, though. If there were ever a year for a surprise result, it’s now.

When I say ‘surprise result’ I’m not referring to yet another right-wing populist (thankfully). This election won’t be surprising on a Brexit or Trump level. Nevertheless, though, there have been unprecedented developments.

The election itself was sparked by the resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, which dissolved the power-sharing government. A monumental figure in Northern Irish politics for over 40 years, the former IRA man turned Good Friday signatory went out with a bang, citing the Democratic Unionist Party’s conduct over the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme as his motivation.

The flawed scheme, initiated by now-First Minister Arlene Foster, cost the state £490m, yet Foster has refused to resign. McGuinness said it was time to “call a halt to the DUP’s arrogance”.

A shake-up could be in order. Northern Irish elections work on a largely tribal basis, with Protestant areas voting for the DUP or UUP while Catholic areas vote for Sinn Fein or the SDLP. This generally results in a DUP First Minister serving alongside a Sinn Fein Deputy; something that, while rightly vaunted as an example of community co-operation, can too often result in political stalemates. Too many ministers are subsumed by fighting battles of the past, or rejecting motions for the sheer fact that they were tabled by rival parties.

Will the DUP remain the largest party after March 2nd, though?

The DUP blocked Executive meetings - preventing Stormont from functioning - for two months in 2015, while Sinn Fein behaved similarly for five months in 2008. A proposed Peace Centre at the former Maze Prison has been in limbo since 2013, losing funding because all parties spent so long bickering over it.

The DUP, in particular, have become notorious for abusing the ‘petition of concern’ function of the power-sharing deal. By claiming (sometimes disingenuously) that a proposal might threaten the peace process, they ensure that it requires the approval of a majority of both unionist and nationalist ministers.

All parties are represented on the executive, which means that decisions are generally reached by consensus. However Sinn Fein and the DUP are given an automatic veto which means they can shoot down any proposal - same-sex marriage being a prominent DUP casualty - that isn’t to their liking.

Will the DUP remain the largest party after March 2nd, though? While it’s improbable that DUP voters would suddenly switch to Sinn Fein, Martin McGuinness possibly hoped that enough would switch to the Ulster Unionists (UUP) to split the Unionist vote and allow Sinn Fein to overtake the DUP. UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has even said that he will give his second preference vote to the nationalist SDLP ahead of his fellow unionists at the DUP.

Others may vote similarly. Anger at the DUP’s Renewable Heat Incentive shouldn’t be underestimated; to put it in perspective, it would have cost £16bn had it occurred across the UK. And yet Arlene Foster, seeming to have absorbed the logic that the DUP will always cling onto power, has been shameless. She claims to have acted “with the highest level of integrity” and called challenges to her power “doomed”.

“If Britain catches a cold by leaving the EU, Northern Ireland will get flu.”

Brexit might also throw a spanner in the electoral works. While the Conservatives won’t face judgement at the ballot box over their handling of EU withdrawal for some time, the Brexit-supporting DUP are facing it right now, at a time when negotiations are flailing. Northern Ireland voted 56% in favour of remain, and could be among the hardest hit by the loss of EU funding and damage to public services.

One writer explained it thus: “If Britain catches a cold by leaving the EU, Northern Ireland will get flu.” This isn’t to mention the hard border that will most likely become necessary to separate Northern Ireland from its EU member state neighbour. It may not be the armed “border of the past” foreseen by former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, but it will still be an unnecessary symbol of division and, if nothing else, hugely inconvenient.

None of these things will turn Northern Irish politics on its head in and of themselves, but they throw up significant bumps in a usually predictable road. They present a turning point, forcing parties to question two decades of received wisdom and - just maybe - pivot the nature of power-sharing.

Arlene Foster, demonstrating her usual hostile approach to power-sharing, recently said that approving Sinn Fein’s Irish Language Act would be like feeding a crocodile: “it will keep coming back for more”. Out on the campaign trail, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams replied with a cheeky grin: “See you later alligator”.

Watch this space. It may not have all the drama of last year’s elections and referendums, but this snap election just got snappy.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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