Reaction: Sinn Fein Bite Hardest in Northern Ireland’s Snap Election
Chances are, the results of the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections weren’t the first thing you read about on the weekend news. As I predicted last month, there weren’t headline-grabbing political earthquakes of a Trump or Brexit magnitude. The tremors were far greater than many could imagine, though, marking the biggest upheaval at Stormont in almost two decades and bringing a once-dominant party’s power crashing down.
In last year’s election, the Democratic Unionist Party won 38 seats, ten ahead of their nationalist rivals Sinn Fein. Now, just ten months later, they are down to 28 seats, with Sinn Fein biting at their heels with 27. Only 1,168 first preference votes separated the two parties, meaning that, although they’ve scraped through as the largest party, the DUP have decisively lost their majority. In fact, when other parties are taken into account – the SDLP leap-frogged over the Ulster Unionists into third place - there are now more nationalists than unionists in Stormont for the first time in its history.
There’s several ways to read this. Some might groan at the electorate voting for the same two parties that have spent years butting heads but, in truth, this was always going to be a battle between Sinn Fein and the DUP. Sinn Fein’s surge, combined with a dramatic increase in voter turnout, indicates an electorate turning against the DUP over their Renewable Heating scandal.
The flawed energy scheme, dubbed ‘Cash for Ash’, cost the state £490m and prompted the snap election. DUP leader Arlene Foster resolutely refused to accept any blame, though, hoping that old loyalties and fear of what she called Sinn Fein’s “extreme Republican agenda” would help her retain power. But while she will likely continue as First Minister, her power (and arrogance) have been heavily dented.
Northern Irish politics might just take up more headlines in future
The DUP’’s loss removes their ability to file petitions of concern, which have been controversially used to block marriage equality, amongst other proposals. They may still be able to block these proposals in future, but they’ll now need help from other parties.
They will also face liberal rivals such as Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein, who have their biggest mandate in years, making social progress in Northern Ireland a bigger prospect than ever before.
To increase the tension this election makes life harder for Theresa May, forcing her to contend with Remain-supporting nationalists as well as the SNP, and further lessening parliamentary support for Brexit.
Sinn Fein are unlikely to agitate for a united Ireland; however, concerns over a hard border and the threat to Northern Ireland’s economy will be thorns in May’s side, and could potentially lay the foundation for a greater demand for unification in coming years.
For now, though, the newly-elected Ministers have three weeks to form a government. There is a growing demand for politics to move past tribal divides of the past. While rivalries were clearly on show in the last month, today marks an undeniable shift. A greater balance of unionist and nationalist ministers may well lead to bitter disputes, but it might also cause profound changes in Stormont’s priorities. News companies should prepare themselves - Northern Irish politics might just take up more headlines in future.
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.
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