It’s a crucial time for Northern Ireland. We’ve got Brexit coming up, and coupled with the fact that the country voted to Remain, there’s also the issue of there potentially being a physical barrier separating the north and south of the island. There’s also just been a large corruption scandal that led to the Deputy First Minister resigning. And then there’s the fact that there’s just been an election. Plus it’s just Northern Ireland.
Before I talk about the election I just want to say that I’ve been surprised by the lack of coverage that it has had in national newspapers. I know that it doesn’t directly affect the whole of the UK but most papers only gave it a quarter of a page on something like page 4, which is a bit ridiculous.
As part of the ‘ceasefire’ agreed with the IRA, the Northern Irish Assembly has a power-sharing agreement in which both a Unionist and a Nationalist party must work together. A few months ago, Martin McGuinness, of the Nationalist Sinn Fein party, resigned as Deputy First Minister over a botched energy scheme overseen by his coalition partner: First Minister Arlene Foster’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). According to the Northern Irish constitution, an election had to be called.
Normally, the Unionist parties always get more of the vote than the Nationalist parties. However, last week this wasn’t the case. Although the DUP still got more seats than Sinn Fein (albeit only by 1 seat), the two largest Nationalist parties (Sinn Fein and the SDLP) got more of the vote than the two main Unionist parties (the DUP and the Ulster Unionists). In addition, the DUP was short of an overall majority. This was likely down to the public turning against the party due to the energy saga.
As a result, Sinn Fein and the DUP will probably have to form some sort of, likely unstable, coalition government. However, if they don’t agree to do this, and they see no real way to work around their differences and form a government, another election will be called.
So what does this mean? Instability in Northern Ireland for a start. It also complicates matters for Theresa May and will affect her Brexit negotiations. However, I don’t expect the surge in nationalist support to translate to powerful calls for reunification with the south of Ireland, or even a referendum on the issue. Opinion polling has consistently put those in favour of re-joining the south at between 30-40% of the electorate. This is not even nearly enough. What’s worth watching out for though is whether this election will lead to a long-term surge in support for Nationalism, or it’s just a temporary blip for the DUP. Only time will tell.