The Stormont Elections

Yesterday proved to be an historic day in the politics of Northern Ireland, as the counting of votes from elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont on Thursday made Sinn Féin the party with the largest number of seats. This is the first time a republican party has topped the poll, and thus the first time that Sinn Féin has the right to nominate the First Minister under the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. Whether the leading unionist party (the Democratic Unionist Party) will play its part in forming a new administration remains to be seen. The DUP seem to be keener at manufacturing a crisis over the Northern Ireland Protocol than doing anything positive for the people of Northern Ireland as a whole.

For what it’s worth I think that if the DUP had any sense they would actually support the Protocol. Norther Ireland as a whole voted against Brexit, but the DUP helped deliver it anyway. In any case parties in favour of the Protocol are now in the majority in Stormont now.

I’m in no position to provide an expert political commentary on what these results mean for the future, but I will add a couple of observations to counter some silly comments flying around the, especially UK, media.

I saw countless statements that the electoral system used in these elections is “complex” and went on to make misleading statements by misunderstanding or misrepresenting how it works. I don’t think it is at all. The Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies is actually very straightforward and is indeed the same system as used here in the Republic. Much attention was focussed on the share of first-round preferences (of which SF got 29% and the DUP 21%). The reason why the final total of seats is much more even than this is that the DUP lost a number of first-preferences to the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) which picked up about 7.7% of the first preferences, but most TUV voters probably put the DUP as second preference and the DUP would have picked up votes when TUV candidates were eliminated: adding TUV+DUP gives about 29%, roughly the same as SF.

The behaviour of voters in selecting parties below their first choice is more complicated than that and can be very interesting. Some will just vote for their favourite party and not list any alternatives at all. Others will carefully rank all the candidates. This is one of the things that makes STV elections something of a spectator sport, as each round of counting gradually reveals the pattern of transfers. I checked the results regularly on Friday and Saturday as the counts progressed, as I did during the election here in 2020.

Overall I wasn’t surprised that the results came out the way they did between SF and DUP but the surprise is how well the Alliance Party did, more than doubling its seats. When I was a lad the Alliance Party was a moderate Unionist outfit but is now basically neutral on the unionist/nationalist issue and is on other issues a pretty conventional centrist party analogous to the Liberal Democrats in the UK.

The other issue that people have been speculating about is whether these results will lead rapidly to a Border Poll and the prospect of a United Ireland. While it is true that a nationalist leadership of the NI Assembly is a necessary condition for that to happen, it is by no means sufficient. A huge amount of groundwork will have to be done before a fully-developed plan, encompassing difficult issues as healthcare provision and taxation, can be presented to voters. Having seen the fiasco of Brexit, no responsible leader would put anything less than concrete proposals to a public vote. It will take time to develop a proper strategy. A United Ireland would be a very big and difficult fish to land, so patience is definitely required: try to reel it in too quickly and you will lose it.

What is interesting is the emergence of a sizeable block of voters that is agnostic on this issue: whether or not there will be a United Ireland will depend on how these people see things. If the UK economy continues to slide and Westminster is further engulfed by corruption then opinion might shift rapidly towards NI unshackling itself from the corpse. But it’s not there yet. It’s not even clear whether a majority of voters in the Republic would want a United Ireland either. The recent rise of Sinn Féin in the Republic has at least as much to do with issues internal to the Republic – especially the chronic housing shortage – as the goal of a United Ireland.

When Northern Ireland it was set up a century ago, it was prepared in such a way that the electorate was polarized along a Catholic-Protestant religious axis (the boundaries of NI chosen to ensure a Protestant majority). Mostly (but not exclusively) this axis coincided with the Republican-Loyalist one, as well as the usual Right and Left of politics. Over time it seems these alignments have shifted and the overall level of polarization has decreased: the system is losing memory of its initial conditions. The rise of a centrist party such as the Alliance is a manifestation of this.

3 Responses to “The Stormont Elections”

  1. Francis Says:

    The STV voting system is probably one of the fairest around, and certainly far better than first-past-the-post. Your comment that ‘While it is true that a nationalist leadership of the NI Assembly is a necessary condition for that to happen’ isn’t really the case. What is needed is for a majority of the people voting to want a unified Ireland. The last opinion poll only showed about a third of voters being in support of a united Ireland. A lot of the support against was linked to financial matters, such as paying for healthcare and taxation.

    So you are right that economic issues will have a major impact on the way people vote in the future. Hence pro-union politicians should focus on trying to make the effective continued EU membership of NI a success – and it does provide many opportunities. (And also sort out the absolute mess that e.g. the health services here are in).

    Although the parties that want changes to the protocol obtained the most votes, it is very hard to see what can be done. I would like it changed – it has impacted the ability to import stuff from GB and many companies are simply now refusing to ship here. But I also accept that it cannot be changed and at the end of the day the UK government agreed to it.

    What will be interesting is the Assembly vote on the protocol in 2024 – it is likely to come down to how Alliance votes. (Assuming we don’t have another election before then – which is a big assumption). At the moment they say there are problems with it but overall support it. That could change if it does cause major problems.

    • telescoper Says:

      What I meant was that it will take a big push from a nationalist leadership for a border poll to be initiated in the first place.

      Now of course taxes are going up in the UK but not in the Republic and the wider economic outlook is very uncertain. Healthcare must be a major issue, but if the NHS collapses and/or the Irish Health Service is reformed, what then?

      • Francis Says:

        See your point.

        NHS here is pretty much near collapse already….. Waiting times are long and I think still increasing. My wife needed a hip replacement, which she had in 2019 after being on the waiting list for I think about 18 months. Now I believe it can be up to 4 years.

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