Friday, 3 March 2017

A Glimpse at Northern Ireland's Election

So, counting is now underway for Northern Ireland's election (follow hashtag #AE17 on Twitter), and my focus for today is going to be getting results put up over on my NI Elections site as they come in.  The news coverage of these elections over in Great Britain has been pretty much non-existent since Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister, triggering the new elections in the first place.

So, for those over here who won't have heard much about this election since then, here's a quick brief of the important points to look for as results begin to trickle in...

First, there has been a reduction in the number of seats in the Northern Irish Assembly since last year's election, from 108 to 90.  The constituencies remain the same, but each will now elect five assembly members rather than six - and yes, Northern Ireland has proportional representation, using the Single Transferable Vote system to elect assembly members in each constituency.  This is the same system used by Scotland for local elections for those familiar with it there.  This is a bit more of a concern to nationalist parties than unionist parties, as they won more of the last seats in each constituency in 2016 - five Sinn Féin and five SDLP, compared to four DUP and one UUP, along with two Alliance members and one independent as well.

Rumours abound that the turnout is relatively up in nationalist areas and relatively down in unionist areas, however.  This is probably to be expected in the wake of the RHI scandal that brought down the Northern Irish government earlier this year, or at least was cited as the prime motive for Martin McGuinness's resignation.  However, if true, this could help Sinn Féin and the SDLP to perform better than the DUP and UUP, and clinch those vital fifth and now final seats in each constituency.

Indeed, a great deal of excitement about this election is around whether Sinn Féin can become the largest party in the Assembly, which would be a historic first for the nationalist movement in Northern Ireland.  There will be no majority government as a result of the electoral system in place, and the requirement placed in the Good Friday Agreement that the Northern Irish Government always be formed of equal numbers of unionist and nationalist parties, but becoming the largest party would be hugely symbolic for Sinn Féin, and allow them to nominate the new First Minister, assuming that either of the main unionist parties could do a power-sharing deal with them.  The DUP have been the largest party in the Assembly since 2003, and prior to that the UUP were the largest party since the very first elections to the then Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1921.

Brexit plays a large part in this belief that Sinn Féin may achieve this feat - the UUP and DUP both supported the Leave campaign, while Sinn Féin was explicitly pro-Remain.  This issue is all the more contentious in Northern Ireland, and particularly amongst the nationalist community too, for fear that Brexit will result in the restoration of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  While unionist voters are unlikely to switch their votes directly to nationalist parties, reduced turnout in unionist areas, and unionists switching to cross-community parties like Alliance or the Greens could be just enough to see Sinn Féin emerge as the largest party.

So, in 2016, the DUP won 38 seats, Sinn Féin won 28, the UUP 16, the SDLP 12, Alliance 8, and others won 6 (see full 2016 results on my NI Elections site here).  Removing the final seat from each constituency last time gives us a provisional result for comparison of 34 DUP, 23 Sinn Féin, 15 UUP, 7 SDLP, 6 Alliance, and 5 others.  So, can Sinn Féin close that gap?  They're unlikely to gain more than a few seats, realistically, so a lot of it depends on how well the DUP can retain unionist voters.  If a lot of them start moving to other parties, there's a good possibility that Sinn Féin could move into first, though it would be a scenario that would involve a number of gains for the UUP, and possibly for smaller unionist parties like Traditional Unionist Voice as well.

Personally, at an educated guess, I expect a result along the lines of 28-30 DUP, 25-27 Sinn Féin, 16-18 UUP, 6-7 SDLP, 6-7 Alliance, and a few others including Greens, People Before Profit, and Traditional Unionist Voice.  But if the turnouts really do move enough, or enough DUP voters move to the UUP or TUV, then anything is possible...

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