By PETER GEOGHEGAN
Foster’s DUP finished in first place but the party now has 10 fewer seats. That is partly because the overall number of seats in the devolved assembly at Stormont has been reduced from 108 to 90. But it is also a reflection on the DUP and on Foster, who was widely blamed for the botched renewable heat incentive scandal that precipitated the vote.
Here are four takeaways from the election results:
1. A new political reality
‘Carnage’ declared the front page of the unionist-leaning Belfast Telegraph — and with good reason. For the first time since the creation of Northern Ireland almost a century ago, unionism no longer holds a majority at Stormont. A state that was specifically constructed to guarantee an in-built pro-UK majority will now have more Irish nationalists than Ulster unionists in its devolved parliament.
The surge in support for Sinn Féin is the headline-grabbing story of this election. In recent years, support for Irish nationalism has slowly ebbed away, in part as Catholics became more comfortable in the union after the 1998 Good Friday peace accord. But on Thursday Sinn Féin increased its share of the vote by almost four percentage points, and nationalist parties won the support of just under two-fifths of the electorate. The moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party’s also managed to arrest a long-term decline.
The DUP’s share of the vote only fell by a little over one percentage point, but that was enough to ensure a series of high-profile losses, including former minister Nelson McCausland and party chairman Lord Morrow. Possibly even more significantly, with just 28 seats, the DUP is two short of the total needed to lodge a ‘petition of concern’ — a measure that allows parties to block legislation that, at least nominally, could negatively affect one community. The DUP has used the petition of concern 86 times in just five years, often to stymie gay marriage and other minority rights.
2. Middle ground still squeezed
Moderates had mixed results. The Ulster Unionists and SDLP — who formed Stormont’s first formal opposition in the wake the last election in May 2016 — had high hopes of building on a strong showing over the heating scheme scandal. In the lead-up to the vote, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt even did the unthinkable in Northern Irish politics — he called on his voters to give second preferences to the nationalist SDLP. That strategy did not pay dividends for the party. Its share of the vote was almost unchanged and it will have one seat fewer in the new smaller assembly. Nesbitt announced his resignation on Friday and the Ulster Unionists — for 50 years the dominant force in Northern Irish politics — are now in the wilderness, searching for yet another leader.
Nesbitt’s ecumenism does, however, appear to have benefited the SDLP. The party’s share of the vote declined slightly, but it held its 12 seats, often on the back of Ulster Unionist transfers. Nevertheless, the party lost ground in its strongholds, with Sinn Féin finishing ahead of the SDLP in Foyle, home constituency of 33-year-old leader Colum Eastwood, and North Down. Sinn Féin also won four of the five seats in West Belfast, which once regularly returned SDLP candidates.
3. The Brexit factor
Most voters in Northern Ireland backed staying in the EU in last June’s Brexit referendum. But as the U.K. as a whole voted to leave, Northern Ireland finds itself heading for the exit doors anyway.
This has radically destabilized Northern Ireland’s political consensus. Over the past two decades, moderate Irish nationalists have been content to support the union within the Good Friday Agreement’s power-sharing structures. But the prospect of being pulled out of the EU — and the possibility of a hard Irish border — has changed that dynamic.
Among Northern Ireland’s major parties, only the DUP backed Brexit. Foster has said it will be good for the union — but it does not seem to have been good for unionists. They are now outnumbered by nationalists in the Stormont assembly.
4. Return to direct rule?
The big question now is whether a new administration can be formed. The DUP and Sinn Féin have been in coalition for almost a decade, yet have never seemed further apart. Under Northern Ireland’s complex power-sharing system, the government cannot function if the two largest parties refuse to take part. The negotiations to make that happen could be difficult — if not downright impossible.
This Monday, all the new assembly members will sign the register at Stormont. The DUP and Sinn Féin then have until March 27 to form an executive. In the wake of the vote, Foster said “let us move forward with hope.” Her opposite number, Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill, said “we now need to get down to the business of fixing what’s wrong and delivering for all citizens.” Easier said than done. The parties are poles apart in a number of key areas, not least the symbolically crucial Irish language act. A divisive campaign also makes coming together more difficult.
If no deal is forthcoming, British secretary of state for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire can either reintroduce direct rule from London or call another election. Already some senior figures are calling for talks to be given more time. “If at the end of three weeks they haven’t [agreed], then legislation is one option to give them more time or to return to direct rule,” said former secretary of state Theresa Villiers. By the end of this month, her party leader, Prime Minister Theresa May, is due to notify the European Union of Britain’s intention to leave the bloc. There is a strong possibility that process will begin without Northern Ireland having a government in place to represent its interests.