As results filtered through on Friday, and finally confirmed in the early hours of Saturday morning, there was a feeling that the Northern Irish electorate had delivered a different message to the one that we have become accustomed to hearing.
It quickly became apparent that turnout was up – by 10 per cent across the region, by even more in certain constituencies. But the pattern was not clear. Turnout was up everywhere – both in traditionally unionist and nationalist areas.
After the first results were confirmed, it seemed that – in the circumstances – the scandal-hit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) would hold up quite well. But as the day turned into evening, the results suddenly seemed far from comfortable for First Minister Arlene Foster.
By the early hours, the full force of the unionists’ failure to effectively vote manage, and their lacklustre campaign, had been felt. Having fallen from 38 to 28 seats, the DUP can no longer invoke petition of concern – an effective veto on legislation designed to ensure interests of both communities are protected which can be invoked by 30+ Assembly members from either the unionist or the nationalist side – by themselves. If Stormont is to become functional again, we can expect a raft of legislation which the DUP has hitherto used the Petition of Concern to block – including social reforms such as same-sex marriage.
An effective campaign by Sinn Fein means that they are now just one seat behind the DUP, and while the Assembly is still many years from a nationalist majority, the significance of the loss of a unionist majority in Stormont is hard to understate.
However, it is possible that we may never find out how Stormont with such a political makeup will play out. As the two largest parties in their respective communities, the DUP and Sinn Fein must now negotiate to form an Executive. For all the post-election diplomatic talk of being open to negotiations, neither side will be relishing these talks.
Key to the negotiation’s success is the future of DUP Leader Arlene Foster. The DUP need to either allow her to stay, or force her out without looking like Sinn Fein made them do it. Sinn Fein need to either get Foster out of the First Minister’s office, or allow her to stay without looking like they are dropping the demand that caused this election.
The Assembly will likely meet early next week, and then there is a two-week limit on negotiations. If these fail, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire has a decision to make on whether to call fresh elections, or return the region to direct rule from London via emergency legislation – both outcomes would be deeply problematic. The nationalist parties have already set themselves against any return to direct rule, particularly in the context of the imminent triggering of Article 50. Fresh elections also do not seem a very effective solution, given they will likely lead to a very similar outcome – unless the outcome of this result bucks up the unionists’ ideas about vote management.
My sense is that, after a lot of posturing, and in a very careful and stage-managed way, Arlene Foster will be politely shown the door by her own party. Although she is apparently keen to stay on, already there are reports of dissent, and the loss of that totemic petition-of-concern power is likely what did for her. This will pave the way for a power-sharing agreement within the three -week deadline, albeit in a much more tense Stormont than we have seen even in the last couple of years.
Alternatively, given the bolstering that Foster has apparently given the nationalist vote, Sinn Fein might be prepared to move more on her future than we would have thought about a month ago.
If I am wrong and no solution is found quickly, then be prepared for a lot of discussion about the return of direct rule, and the nuanced difference between Stormont as a legislature and as an executive. There will be talk of joint-authority over the region between the UK and Irish governments, although the legal authority behind such an arrangement would be vague and probably not countenanced by the unionists. If there is no executive by the time Article 50 is triggered, there will be a tricky discussion on who really represents Northern Ireland – which voted strongly to Remain – in the negotiations. That is a claim that the Irish Taoiseach might be tempted to make.
In the end though, rather than the Brexit negotiations, the most long-lasting effects of this election will be felt most keenly by the unionists in Northern Ireland. Both the DUP and the Ulster Unionists (UUP) suffered heavy blows, and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt was the first casualty of the election night after he resigned amid criticism of his decision to transfer his vote to the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).
Unionism in Northern Ireland seems to have plunged itself into crisis remarkably quickly. While the DUP are still retaining unionist votes, they are starting to feel diminishing returns as demographics shift. Not only did the high turnout of nationalist votes blunt their strength, but the Alliance Party’s good night is testament to a growing number of unionist voters prepared to vote on a cross-community basis. Both the DUP and the UUP were ill-equipped to cope with such circumstances. Both are going to have to come up with new ideas to reverse the trend, and they may have limited time to do so.
Main photo by Robert Young – https://www.flickr.com/photos/robertpaulyoung/