Saturday, 4 March 2017

My analysis of the Northern Ireland Assembly election of 2017

The snap Northern Ireland Assembly election of 2017, which took place two days ago with the snap election having been called mainly over the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) scandal, proved to be a major game-changer in many ways.

Far from falling further, turnout in the NI Assembly election increased by 10 percentage points, rising to the highest level since 1998, when the NI Assembly originally convened after previous devolution attempts had failed. The reduction from 108 seats to 90 (caused by each constituency electing 5 MLAs instead of 6), which will be further reduced to 85 if boundary changes are pushed through, led to a lot of interesting tussles especially in the more divided (between unionists and nationalists) constituencies such as Upper Bann and Belfast North.

The DUP and Arlene Foster were held responsible for the scandal and the need to call a snap election after the power-sharing agreement consequently broke down, and they were duly punished, falling to just 28 seats out of 90 (a loss of 5 on the notional 2016 result). Sinn Fein meanwhile managed to win 27 seats, only one behind the DUP even though Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister was not really less responsible than Arlene over the whole fiasco. This crucially meant that the DUP lost its right to table a 'petition of concern' motion by itself, which it has used so many times in the past to stop legalisation of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. (A 'petition of concern', if successfully raised by 30 Stormont members, raises the requirement for passing an Assembly motion from a simple majority of Stormont members irrespective of alignment to a majority of both unionist and nationalist members of Stormont, meaning that only truly cross-community motions could overcome it)

Despite high expectations from them given the circumstances of this election, the SDLP and UUP failed to make a real impact (and both lost key figures like Alex Attwood and Danny Kennedy in Belfast West and Newry & Armagh), especially as sectarian electors see them as outdated and rather weak; Mike Nesbitt resigned as UUP leader only yesterday. His attempt to rise above sectarianism by sometimes calling for 2nd preferences to the SDLP (mainly to stop Sinn Fein) has failed; sectarianism still has a hold on Northern Irish politics even though it is weakening every year. The SDLP managed 12 seats and the UUP 10-little change at all overall. Another blow to the SDLP was that Sinn Fein's 1st preference vote combined overtook them in Foyle for the very first time; Foyle, covering the city of Derry, has long been regarded as the SDLP's fortress in Northern Ireland. The SDLP's only consolation is that their election of Pat Catney gave the constituency of Lagan Valley a nationalist presence in the Assembly again. The Alliance Party has been gaining ground particularly in the last decade and achieved 9.1% of the first preference votes, their best result since 1982. However, they were ultimately unable to increase its seat total of 8 despite the fact it is one of the most 'transfer friendly' parties in Northern Ireland when it comes to Assembly results. Even in their weak spots, however (e.g. Belfast West), they are gaining traction from younger and middling generations and ethnic minority voters in particular.

I am very pleased that the Green Party of Northern Ireland managed to re-elect its 2 MLAs, Clare Bailey and Steven Agnew, especially since lowering the number of seats per constituency harms smaller parties like the Green Party; STV is only truly proportional if the number of seats in a constituency or area is high enough. (The fact that Dail constituencies in the Republic of Ireland, which use STV, cannot be larger than five seats harms proportionality in practice). Belfast South is the most competitive constituency in Northern Ireland politically, and reducing it to five seats for Assembly elections made it more of a squeeze and made gathering good transfers critical; Clare's seat was one of the last to declare. Meanwhile, the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) Party retained its Assembly seat mainly on the back of Jim Allister's personal vote; its extremist, paleoconservative stance means that few voters who do not vote for it initially will give it usable transfers for later rounds. People Before Profit, meanwhile, lost considerable support among nationalist voters and one of their two sitting MLAs, Eamonn McCann, was unseated in Foyle after failing to get enough crucial transfers in the last round. Support for Brexit, which is unpopular amongst nationalist voters (the more nationalist constituencies voted solidly 'Remain' in the EU referendum within Northern Ireland, irrespective of wealth or social class), cost PBP dearly; even though Gerry Carroll was re-elected, his first preference votes dropped sharply and he finished fifth in Belfast West rather than topping the poll as he did last year. His running mate, Michael Collins, polled only 2,6% and was eliminated in round one in the same constituency. People Before Profit's forays into unionist constituencies (East Londonderry and South Antrim) earned them few friends even amongst the nationalist population there. The sole Independent, Claire Sugden (who designates herself as a unionist) was re-elected in East Londonderry. Notable also are the PUP (Progressive Unionist Party) failing to regain respect they once had among working-class unionist voters; in 1998, they elected 2 MLAs but now have none and no realistic prospects of obtaining any. Their best results were once again in Belfast (6.6% in East and 4.9% in North, which nonetheless represent improvements for them on last year's vote shares). UKIP's absence from even ballot papers (except in East Antrim, where their candidate, Noel Jordan, fared poorly) in this election is partly down to poor organisation as well as a lack of support for Brexit in Northern Ireland outside County Antrim. Amongst minor parties and Independents, only Jimmy Menagh and Melanie Kennedy achieved respectable results; Gerry Mullan and Jonathan Bell, who were deselected by the SDLP and suspended by the DUP respectively whilst MLAs, experienced the same fate as many defectors and deselected candidates, since they both polled less than 3% in their respective constituencies and were eliminated early. The wooden spoon award of this Assembly election went to the NI Conservatives' Roger Lomas, who polled only 27 first preference votes in West Tyrone, behind even extreme Christian fundamentalist Susan-Anne White (who managed 41, her worst total so far). Even in North Down the NI Conservatives have no real support and elsewhere are lucky if they do not finish last in the poll.

Since 55 seats out of 90 are held either by the DUP or Sinn Fein, the power-sharing agreement may end up continuing anyway, as neither the unionists nor the nationalists have a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly. This is a real disappointment for many who had been expecting real change from this early election, and who are tired of religious sectarianism that has plagued Northern Ireland ever since it was split from (southern) Ireland in 1922, although the DUP's lack of an ability to make a petition of concern without help as I described earlier may pave the way for some reforms in the next five years in Northern Ireland.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent analysis Alan ;)