By Joe Rossiter
Next year, Northern Ireland’s voters will go to the polls for the first time since the 2017 vote which left the region’s Executive paralysed for over three years. The turbulent term of the last Assembly was dominated by issues such as Brexit and an Irish language act, before more recent violence on the streets and the resignation of the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) leader and First Minister Arlene Foster. This will be a highly significant vote in a volatile region, and its consequences could have important ramifications for politicians in Westminster.
In 2017, a second election in as many years was precipitated by the resignation of then-Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, in protest of the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) scandal. Overseen by then-Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene Foster, the RHI had no cost controls and allowed users to profit from using excess energy, costing the Executive £465 million more than originally projected.
Foster refused to stand aside as First Minister while an investigation took place, leading to McGuinness’s resignation in protest. As Sinn Féin refused to nominate a Deputy First Minister, a snap election was called, in which the DUP lost ten Assembly seats. This led to a period of deadlock for three years, during which no Executive was formed due to a failure of the two major parties to agree a programme for government.
In 2020, the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement was reached between Sinn Féin and the DUP with the British and Irish governments, allowing the restoration of the Executive with Foster as First Minister and, following his death in 2017, McGuinness’s successor Michelle O’Neill as her deputy.
Since then, Foster has resigned as DUP leader after criticism following the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, an element of the Brexit agreement that placed a customs border down the Irish Sea. The perceived separation of Northern Ireland from mainland Britain caused loyalist violence in Belfast earlier this year. Edwin Poots replaced Foster but stepped aside just a month into his new role, after accusations of intimidatory tactics during the leadership election and Poots’s nomination of Paul Givan to the post of First Minister- an unpopular decision among DUP members.
This disarray within the party has coincided with a declining poll rating that puts its status as Northern Ireland’s largest party in serious doubt. A Belfast Telegraph LucidTalk poll conducted in August gave Sinn Féin a huge 12-point lead over the DUP, who were relegated to being the third largest unionist party. This could well change before voters go to the polls, however, given the election of a new party leader in Jeffrey Donaldson, though his elevation has not proved profitable for the party so far.
Such a result, if replicated next year, would have historic consequences for Northern Ireland and its political institutions. The largest party in the Assembly provides the First Minister, which would mean a promotion for Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill and mark the first time a nationalist would hold the region’s top role.
Though there is little practical difference between the First Minister and their deputy, the elevation of a nationalist to the former would be a huge symbolic victory to begin what could be a gripping decade in Northern Irish politics.
Ever-present alongside Northern Irish elections is the question of a border poll, and there has been a narrowing in public opinion over many years between a will to remain part of the United Kingdom and a desire to form a united Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement binds the Northern Ireland Secretary to calling a referendum on Irish unity if a majority will for unification is observed. This is potentially observable through Stormont elections. Though not imminent, a Sinn Féin victory could see calls for a vote to become more vocal.
Overall, the 2022 Assembly election will be gripping as a result of the drama and volatility that has always surrounded Northern Irish politics, but this cycle has the added potential to bring an entirely new dynamic to Stormont. If Sinn Féin are returned as the largest party, it would be not only a huge visual victory but a clear message to Westminster that the 2020s, which began with the centenary of Northern Ireland’s establishment this year, may turn out to be a decisive period in its existence.
Image: Lyn Gately via Flickr