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Opinion

Why you really need to keep an eye on the Northern Ireland election

The forthcoming Assembly elections look like being a watershed moment in Northern Irish – and British – history, writes academic and author Feargal Cochrane.

The forthcoming Assembly election in Northern Ireland on May 5 is not far off being the most interesting election in decades. It will impact way beyond Irish shores. 

Power is shared in Northern Ireland between Unionists and Nationalists, which means in practice that the largest Unionist party cannot govern without the largest Nationalist party and vice versa. These dynamics often provide more reasons for people to vote on the basis of the party they most want to stop, rather than for the manifesto they find most convincing.

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This time around five big questions surround the Assembly election. 

Firstly, will Sinn Fein (SF) win the most seats and capture the first minister position? In the previous election in 2017, SF won 27 seats to the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) 28, so if it retains all of its seats and the DUP loses just two it would do so. 

Secondly, if this does happen, will the largest Unionist party (probably the DUP) nominate a deputy first minister and thereby allow the devolved institutions to function? Neither the DUP nor the more liberal and progressive Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) have been willing to say publicly that they would nominate a deputy First Minister to work alongside a Sinn Fein first minister. 

It is likely that the DUP will want the British government to take action on the Northern Ireland Protocol before it would consider a return to Stormont. It might not be a coincidence therefore that British government lawyers have apparently drafted legislation aimed at repealing Section 7a of the EU Withdrawal Act, the legislation which enshrines the Northern Ireland Protocol into British domestic law.

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While this would breach UK treaty commitments and international law, it would make it lawful for UK ministers to ignore aspects of the Protocol they currently object to. This would certainly cause a row with the EU but threatening to do so (rather than actually introducing the legislation) might provide the DUP with a large-enough excuse to return to the Executive and restore the devolved institutions. 

The third question is will the political centre ground hold? One of the less dramatic stories in Northern Ireland is the steady growth of non-aligned voters, those who regard themselves as being both British and Irish, or neither. It is likely that the Assembly election will see the non-aligned Alliance Party continue to make advances on previous elections. However, if Alliance becomes the third-largest party in the Assembly it will pose a challenge to the current ‘two communities’ model of power sharing, where the non-aligned parties do not have the same rights as those who designate themselves as either Unionist or Nationalist. 

The fourth question to look out for in the election is will progressive unionism gain ground? Under its current leader Doug Beattie, the UUP has mapped out a liberal and inclusive form of unionism that distinguishes it from its more hardline rivals.

The question is, has Beattie’s message cut through with the electorate, and will his party be rewarded for offering a more confident and optimistic prospectus? The DUP has a difficult record to defend as it was largely responsible for the Northern Ireland Protocol that it has been campaigning against so vociferously, it has been chronically split and has burned through a succession of leaders since the last election. If the UUP cannot add to the 10 seats it won in the last Assembly election then arguably it never will. 

The fifth and final question is this: Assuming the Humpty Dumpty Assembly does get put back together again after the election, will it prove to be any less brittle or prone to further acts of self-harm than has been the experience over the last 24 years? Next April there will be events held to mark the 25th anniversary of the GFA –whether there is also an Assembly and Executive that can make a reasonable claim to be delivering effective governance for Northern Ireland remains to be seen. 

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If I was putting on a wager at the bookies my tentative answers to these five questions would be two yeses, two nos, and a maybe – (and in order, yes, no, yes, no… and maybe).

Feargal Cochrane is Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Kent. His latest book Northern Ireland: The Fragile Peace is out now (Yale University Press, £11.99) 

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