Today has the potential to be the most interesting, most important election ever in Northern Ireland. The electorate is returning to the polls to elect a new assembly for the second time in less than a year. Almost 20 years after the Good Friday peace agreement, Northern Irish politics is still dominated by nationalism and unionism. Moderate parties rarely fare well.
The DUP topped the polls in last May's devolved election with Sinn Fein finishing second. The two parties - sworn enemies throughout the Troubles - have controlled the power-sharing government for almost a decade. But the power-sharing arrangements collapsed in January when former Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest over the DUP’s handling of the massively overspent Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.
People could be forgiven for thinking that Northern Ireland has come a long way if the big fall out between the DUP and Sinn Fein is over energy rather than violence. Today’s election is important for several reasons. For one, it will help determine whether the Stormont institutions have a future. We’re approaching ten years since Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness agreed to share power. Though this unlikely DUP/Sinn Fein alliance has now survived for 10 years, it is under greater strain than at any point over the last decade.
Many Northern Irish voters are becoming frustrated with the mainstream political parties and disenchanted with the institutional status quo. This may only get worse if the outcome of today’s election results in deadlock or more bickering between unionists and nationalists. Despite this, the real battle in this election is between the DUP and Sinn Fein over who will be the largest party. The DUP again focused its campaign on warning voters of the possibility that Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, could be first minister.
This is a tactic they successfully deployed in the 2007, 2011 and 2016 elections. Even with polls showing both the DUP and Sinn Fein neck and neck, the odds still favour the DUP when it comes to seats; but as we all know, anything is possible on the day. A key point to note is that Northern Ireland is voting for a smaller 90 seat Assembly, slimmed down from the total of 108 who were elected less than 12 months ago, so most parties are likely to have marginally fewer seats. Turnout could be crucial, only 54 percent of the electorate voted last May, and there is little sense of enthusiasm on the ground for yet another election.
My instinct tells me that the DUP will win enough seats to remain the largest party. Regardless of the scale of the result, such an event raises a serious question for Sinn Fein. This election came about because Sinn Fein’s grassroots were increasingly unhappy with the nature of the DUP/Sinn Fein relationship and they won’t be easy to reassure if the result sees the DUP returned as top dog largely undamaged. It is likely that in such circumstances Sinn Fein will demand a high price for returning to government, requiring concessions from the UK Government and DUP on promoting the Irish language and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles. Should Sinn Fein pull off a shock and emerge as the largest party there will be similar big questions for the DUP.
They have spent the entire campaign telling voters how disastrous a Sinn Fein first minister would be to Northern Ireland. And would Arlene Foster and the DUP be prepared to take the “lesser” title of deputy, even though both offices are equal in status? Whatever the outcome of the election, the only certainty is a protracted period of negotiations and possibly the return of direct rule. The results are expected to filter in throughout the weekend. First returns should be tomorrow afternoon, but as for the last... well, how long is a piece of string?