Sinn Fein and the DUP look set to battle it out to be Northern Ireland’s largest party at the May 5 election.
29 April 2022
Northern Ireland goes to the polls on May 5 to elect 90 Assembly members to the devolved legislature in Belfast.
The last Assembly election, a snap poll in March 2017, was held as crisis engulfed the powersharing institutions, which had collapsed two months earlier amid a row about a botched green energy scheme.
Fast forward five years and voters will cast their ballots in the single transferable vote (STV) election with a similar cloud of uncertainty hanging over Stormont.
The ministerial executive imploded in February when the DUP withdrew its first minister Paul Givan in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol – a post-Brexit trading arrangement that has enraged unionists by creating economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK.
Here are some of the main issues and themes that have dominated the election campaign and are set to factor when the votes are counted and efforts to form a new administration begin.
The race for first minister:
Somewhat confusingly for outside observers, there is no legal difference or power disparity between Stormont’s first and deputy first ministers – their co-equal status is a cornerstone of the region’s powersharing structures.
Under current rules, the largest unionist party occupies one of the posts and the largest nationalist party occupies the other, with the first minister’s job going to the one that has more seats. A properly functioning ministerial executive cannot be formed without both roles being filled.
Since 1998, when the governance system was devised as part of Northern Ireland’s historic peace accord, the first minister has always been a unionist.
While Sinn Fein would gain no more authority if it displaces the DUP as the largest party and its Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill assumes the first minister’s job, it would undoubtedly be a symbolically significant moment in the post-Good Friday Agreement era.
Just how significant has been intensely debated during the campaign.
The DUP has insisted that Sinn Fein would be emboldened to call for a border poll on Irish unity if it emerged as the largest party. Unionist rivals characterise that as a scare tactic designed to shore up DUP support in the wake of a series of opinion polls that put the party well behind Sinn Fein.
The republican party, for its part, has maintained that it is prioritising the cost-of-living crisis over a push for constitutional change at this election.
Cost of living, waiting lists and the prospects of a swift return to powersharing:
There is the real possibility that Sinn Fein could emerge as the largest party but be prevented from taking up the first minister’s post – certainly in the short to medium term – due to a lack of a willing partner in government.
Despite intense media questioning on the issue, neither the DUP or UUP have said they will serve as deputy first minister alongside a Sinn Fein first minister.
Their critics have denounced this stance as undemocratic and it potentially runs the risk of galvanising infuriated nationalist voters to back Sinn Fein in greater numbers.
The DUP and UUP have responded to the criticism by insisting any decision on entering an executive should only be taken with knowledge of what the new administration’s proposed programme for government would look like.
Stormont’s smaller parties have challenged the DUP and Sinn Fein to defuse the issue by agreeing to change the names to ‘joint first ministers’ – titles that perhaps more accurately reflect the roles.
While Sinn Fein once proposed such a move, the party has now stepped back from that position, insisting that if it was good enough for a nationalist to serve as a deputy first minister it should be good enough for a unionist too.
If nationalist voters do coalesce behind Sinn Fein the obvious casualty would be the SDLP.
The party has shown signs of resurgence in recent years, as it has sought to promote young talent to its front-line positions, but it always faces the peril of being squeezed in a battle between the DUP and Sinn Fein for top spot.
Not surprisingly, leader Colum Eastwood has dismissed the fuss over the first minister’s job as a distraction as he has tried to steer the electorate’s focus onto bread and butter issues such as soaring living costs and spiralling health service waiting lists.
The SDLP is not alone in concentrating on the real life difficulties facing an increasing number of households in the region.
All the parties accept there are currently too many citizens struggling to heat their homes or waiting years for a consultant led hospital appointment and addressing those twin concerns have been front and centre of all the main manifestos.
In that context, the DUP has taken plenty of political flak for pulling down the executive at a time of such acute need across society.
It has justified the move by insisting the Northern Ireland Protocol is contributing to rising consumer prices and health service pressures and radical action was therefore required to force changes to it.
Aside from the issue of a Sinn Fein first minister, the DUP has made clear it will not re-enter an administration without major reform of the protocol.
While there are parallels with the crisis of 2017, albeit back then Sinn Fein was the party that quit government, there are important differences too.
The major difference is a recent law change that means an executive can trundle on in shadow format for six months without a first and deputy first minister in place. Before that change, failure to nominate to those positions within a week would have led to full-scale collapse of devolution and would have placed an onus on the UK Government to call another election.
With this buffer now in place, and departmental ministers from the last mandate able to continue in their jobs, few Stormont watchers are placing bets on a new executive being formed in the immediate aftermath of the election.
The Northern Ireland Protocol:
Contention over the so-called Irish Sea border has been a source of political and societal tension in Northern Ireland since it came into place at the start of 2021 under the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
Jointly agreed by the UK and EU as a means to keep the Irish land border free-flowing, it shifted regulatory and customs checks to goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Many unionists and loyalists are furious about arrangements they claim are driving a constitutional wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The other Stormont parties, which backed Remain in the Brexit referendum and represented a majority overall in the Assembly in the last mandate, acknowledge that changes to the protocol are needed to cut the burden of red tape on businesses.
However, they insist the main thrust of the arrangement – that Northern Ireland is afforded special status to enable its exporters to trade freely across the Irish border and further into the EU single market – should be retained.
For these parties, their stance on the protocol is unlikely to make or break their electoral fortunes.
For unionist parties, however, the Irish Sea border will assume much more significance on polling day.
While all unionist MLAs from the last mandate oppose the protocol, they differ on how to bring about changes.
The fallout over the Brexit deal was a key factor in the unprecedented turmoil that engulfed the DUP last year, when two leaders, Arlene Foster and her successor Edwin Poots, were ousted in successive internal revolts that occurred within weeks of each other.
That flux came amid poor polling results and fears within party ranks that the unionist electorate would blame the DUP for the protocol, accusing it of squandering its unprecedented influence in the Brexit process during the two-year confidence-and-supply deal with the Conservatives at Westminster.
The harder line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party is hoping to capitalise on the DUP’s travails and has adopted a strident anti-protocol approach.
Critics have previously derided the TUV as a one-man band that relies solely on its leader, formidable barrister Jim Allister, for an identity.
While opinion polls suggest the party could be poised for a breakthrough in this election, with the potential to mop up disaffected DUP voters, it still faces a significant challenge translating any increase in overall vote share into physical seats in the keenly fought five seat constituencies.
On the other wing of unionism, UUP leader Doug Beattie has been trying to move his party more to the centre ground, insisting that engagement and negotiation rather that protest and government walk-outs are the way to bring about changes to the protocol.
The decorated military veteran is betting that any votes he loses from the ranks of traditional unionism he will make up by attracting more liberal unionists into the UUP fold.
The DUP has undoubtedly hardened its position on the protocol over the last 18 months as it bids to retain votes it was otherwise at risk of shedding to the TUV. This strategy culminated with leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s move to withdraw the party’s first minister from the executive.
He is now a regular on the podium alongside Mr Allister at anti-protocol rallies organised by loyalist groups. Some of the gatherings have proved controversial and at one, in a clear sign of the tensions within the broader unionist family, a poster of Mr Beattie with a noose around his neck was seen.
The role that outgoing independent unionist MLAs Claire Sugden and Alex Easton, the latter a former DUP representative, could play in final shake-down of results should not be discounted and both will be confident of retaining their seats.
The rise of the ‘others’:
Sinn Fein had a very good election in 2017, winning 27 seats, and arguably maxed out its potential in several constituencies by capturing three of the five seats available. The DUP, by contrast, spread its 28 seats more broadly, winning more doubles with surplus votes to spare.
In theory, that means Sinn Fein would have to do very well to make gains on its 2017 tally, while the DUP could absorb a dip in popular support and still hold on to its seats in multiple constituencies.
It is possible that Sinn Fein could lose a number of seats but still emerge as the largest party, if the DUP loses more.
If that scenario plays out it will likely mean that the Alliance Party has had a very good election.
Support for the cross-community centrist party has surged at recent elections in Northern Ireland and all opinion polls indicate that rise is set to continue. It has long been the smallest of the five main Stormont parties but a good showing on May 5 could see it leap above the UUP and SDLP to become the third largest party.
Leader Naomi Long claims a big result for Alliance can herald the end of a political system based on binary division.
Stormont currently uses a community designation method that effectively hands blocs of unionists or nationalists a veto in contentious votes. That means parties that designate as neither, such as Alliance, the Greens and People Before Profit (PBP), cannot influence votes where the results are determined by how many unionists and nationalists support or reject a proposal.
The Greens are confident of retaining their two seats and PBP its single seat in west Belfast. Both parties would need to have a very good day to make gains.
A strong showing overall for the parties that make up the designation known as ‘the others’ would undoubtedly strengthen the hand of those calling for reforms they claim are needed to reflect adequately the increasing diversity in Northern Ireland society.