Northern Ireland Assembly Election: Parties based on Sectarian Division Continue to Dominate

Ciaran Muholland

The results of the Northern Ireland Assembly election on May 5th mark a significant political turning point. For the first time since Ireland was partitioned and Northern Ireland was created in 1921, a nationalist party (based in the Catholic community) has won and emerged with the greatest number of seats. This means that Sinn Fein Vice-President Michelle O’Neill will become the First Minister (FM), in the new power-sharing Executive when it is formed. The positions of FM and Deputy First Minister (DFM) are equal in terms of legal powers, but the FM is widely accepted to be the senior role. Sinn Fein winning the FM position is a hugely symbolic moment both for Catholics and Protestants. Most Catholics are in a celebratory mood whilst most Protestants are fearful for the future. 

The outcome of this election is undoubtedly a watershed moment, but it is important to note that it resulted from a small increase in the Sinn Fein vote. Sinn Fein’s vote only went up by 1%, from 28% to 29%, and it returned exactly the same number of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) as before (27). There was significant fall in the vote of the major Unionist (Protestant-supported) party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which dropped from 29% to 24% and lost four seats, falling to 25. The DUP lost some votes to the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), but mostly to the hard-line, right-wing Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). It also lost the votes of many working-class Protestants who abstained, angry at the lack of delivery on economic and social issues.

Now that Sinn Fein is the largest party, it is pushing for a “border poll” within five years. A border poll is shorthand for simultaneous referenda in the North and the Republic of Ireland on whether Northern Ireland should separate from the United Kingdom and be united with the South. The British representative in Northern Ireland, Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, is under a duty to call a poll under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement if he believes that there is a good chance of a vote for a united Ireland. The Assembly election results saw more votes cast for all unionist parties (43%) than for all nationalist parties (41%). The unionist parties also remain just ahead in number of seats (37 v 36). In other words, there is not sufficient momentum to force a border poll at present. Nevertheless, Sinn Fein and other nationalists will raise the issue more loudly than ever and this will further destabilise an already unstable situation. [Read more on the debate around the Irish Border Poll here

A sign of the dangers that lie ahead was the vote gained by the TUV. It won 7.5% of the total vote, which means that one in six unionist voters now support its hard-line positions on the Northern Ireland Protocol and other issues. The Protocol was agreed between the British government and the EU in 2019, in the Brexit withdrawal negotiations. It is designed to “protect the integrity of the EU single market” but is an unnecessary measure which angers Protestants, as it results in checks on goods passing from England, Scotland or Wales to Northern Ireland. This has resulted in delays and some localised shortages but the real problem for Protestants is symbolic as it creates a new border in the Irish Sea. If Brexit had resulted in a similar hardening of the North-South border, there would also be turmoil. Anger over the protocol has bolstered the TUV which has been at the forefront of a series of anti-Protocol rallies over the last year. The rallies have involved clear references to historical events when unionism armed and resisted previous threats to its position, either by force or the threat of force. Under the Good Friday Agreement, the largest unionist party (the DUP) and the largest nationalist party (the SF) are obliged to form a coalition government with an Executive at its head. 

The DUP are seeking at least significant changes in the Protocol before they will consider going into government and in the short term it is very unlikely that a new Executive will be formed. The TUV vote will act as a check on the DUP if it tries to form an Executive with only minimal or cosmetic changes to the Protocol. Boris Johnson is threatening to unilaterally set aside the Protocol, and there may be a sudden development in the coming weeks or months, but it is also possible that negotiations will continue for months or even years. Whatever happens next, the North will remain in a state of crisis, with no functioning government. Last spring and summer a series of anti-Protocol demonstrations resulted in street violence. This was not severe or widespread, and was in part directed by paramilitary groups, but it did represent genuine anger in Protestant working-class communities. 

There are contradictions in Northern Ireland politics. Class issues were very prominent in the election campaign and all the politicians felt it necessary to promise to address the cost-of-living crisis and the terrible state of the health service after years of cuts. On a day-to-day basis, Catholic and Protestant workers are united in their workplaces, and in community campaigns. Simultaneously, workers are divided on issues relating to identity and nationality. In this election the divisive issues were dominant and ultimately determined the result of the election. 

The fact that one third of voters did not vote at all, and that one and six of those who did vote voted for anti-sectarian parties is however significant. The biggest winner in the election was the Alliance Party, a party which seeks to win votes from both Protestants and Catholics. It won 13.5% and more than doubled its number of seats. Until recently Alliance tended to attract older and middle-class voters, but this has changed over recent elections. It is a right-wing party on economic issues (in favour of lower taxes on big business and increasing taxes on workers, in particular water charges) but has trebled its vote over the last 20 years as it has won support from wider layers who reject sectarian division. It has taken votes from both the more moderate wing of unionism (the UUP), and the more moderate wing of nationalism (the Social Democratic and Labour Party or SDLP). In some constituencies it wins votes from these parties, as voters are seeking a better option than allowing a hard-line party from the “other community” to win a seat. These votes are not firmly attached to Alliance, but it does have a core vote of those who now see it as the most credible alternative to the main sectarian parties. 

Alliance may continue to grow, depending on many factors, including whether there is an increase in tension and street violence and whether there is an increase in class struggle. There is clearly a layer, especially of young people, who reject the sectarian nature of politics, and are open to a political alternative which is both anti-sectarian and addresses the issues of low pay, job insecurity and attacks on public services. If a credible anti-sectarian and cross-community party of the working class begins to develop there is a large potential base to be won over. The results for parties from the left in the election tell us much about the necessary next steps and will be analysed in a second article. 

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