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AE2022 – What’s next?

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10th May 2022

AE2022 – What’s next?

Last week’s assembly election saw Sinn Féin becoming the biggest party in terms of votes and seats. This shift away from the long-held status-quo of a unionist first minister made headlines globally, Sinn Féin were predicted to be the biggest party both in terms of votes and numbers, but their increased vote has surpassed expectations. There is no denying the significance of this shift.

Sinn Féin’s election strategy centred on O’Neill being the first nationalist first minister, her tagline ‘First Minister for All’ and the promise that Sinn Féin would represent everyone. While it was welcome to see a positive message in midst of quite a negative election campaign, the challenge for Sinn Féin will be to see how this works in practice. Sinn Féin have long had senior members responsible for unionist outreach, but given increasing polarisation in unionism, outreach and engagement will be no mean feat. Furthermore, ‘For All’ means more than unionism and there are sections in society, the business community for example, for whom there is little in the way of an established relationship with Sinn Féin. Strengthening this relationship will require effort on both sides.

As for the DUP, it was not their best election, and their campaign was lacklustre to say the least. However, many expected their result to be a lot worse and they are still the biggest force in unionism. An increased vote share for the TUV may reinforce the fixation on the protocol, despite the fact that this didn’t really seem to be a priority for much of the electorate. What’s clear is that they won’t be joining the executive for now, however what remains to be seen is how and when they will join and still maintain credibility.

Renegotiation of the protocol does not mean removal, and, as yet, it is difficult to see at what point the DUP’s concerns on the protocol will be appeased, and how they will sell any renegotiation as a victory. A call for another election is likely to be met with hostility from all sides, electioneering is expensive business and given that most parties had a ‘get Stormont working’ message as part of their mandate, this would be a difficult sell.

The failure of the TUV to secure more seats will be of some consolation to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, if the TUV failed to secure seats in this election, given everything on the table, it is difficult to see when they will. Jim Allister is merely a thorn in the side of the DUP rather than a serious threat.

The rise of Alliance, although predicted, blew most people’s expectations well out of the water. This was a fantastic election for them and has established them as a true force in Northern Ireland politics. With this election they have shown that they are no longer solely for those who don’t consider themselves green or orange, but more those who value a progressive agenda above traditional loyalties. Party leader, Naomi Long noted ‘Alliance have never lost a seat’ and now the challenge for them will be to maintain this result. Their new MLAs are young and enthusiastic, and will undoubtedly bring something fresh to the assembly, it will be interesting to see what’s next for them. One issue to consider is that there may now be pressure on Alliance to address the ‘constitutional question’ at some stage in this mandate. Not taking a position on what is likely to be a growing political discussion is not sustainable, it’s likely they may allow a ‘conscience’ policy on this matter; however, this too will draw scrutiny as it does with the SDLP and their position on abortion.

Speaking of the SDLP, it was a disastrous election for them, and it is difficult to see how they will come back from this. Colum Eastwood delivered what was arguably the strongest performance of all party leaders throughout the debates, but this did not translate into votes. Their constant Sinn Féin bashing cost them a lot of votes, and certain social media gaffes may have been one of the reasons Nichola Mallon did particularly badly on transfers. If the party is to recover or even maintain their vote, they will have to embrace the new reality, stop obsessing over the rise of Sinn Féin and focus on getting their own house in order. Eastwood’s decision not to nominate a replacement for Nichola Mallon and formally announce themselves as a party of opposition is a clever move, and arguably the only card they have left to play.

A few words on the UUP, they made no major gaffes, Doug Beattie remained calm and coherent throughout the debate yes, but despite this they saw their vote drop by almost 2%. If they join the executive, they would be entitled to one minister, yet opposition may be the wiser political choice. Their results were not disastrous, and some candidates performed quite well, especially Robin Swann, the universally loved Health Minister, however their young and diverse candidates failed to break any new ground. Given the that the SDLP cannot be in the executive and Stormont will, for once, have a sizeable opposition, the UUP may decide to join them and enjoy the political benefits of not being at the helm.

With great power comes great responsibility and there is a lot of pressure on all newly elected MLAs to make Stormont work. The DUP’s refusal to enter government will only enhance the willingness of others to move ahead with the legislative agenda and start spending government money. How this will be done remains to be seen.

Lastly, TUV, despite an increased vote share, failed to elect more than one member. While their leadership may be all for electoral reform the simple fact is that they are not transfer friendly and this is unlikely to change. The Greens were wiped out, victims of Alliance’s success, and People Before Profit retained their seat albeit with a reduced vote share. The two independent unionists comfortably retained their seats but are in for a very different experience on the opposition benches.

Final thoughts

Turnout was up in terms of numbers and only slightly down in terms of percentage voting (-1.20%). The enhanced electoral register could have been a result of the spend local scheme, but despite many complaining of a boring election campaign, people were obviously motivated to go and vote.

The loss of the SDLP’s Pat Catney’s was a shock to many beyond party ranks, hopefully his feminist legacy will be continued by some of Stormont’s newest members.

BBC’s rolling election coverage was well done and dynamic, however they had a serious lack of women pundits, meaning Fionnuala O’Connor was the only woman for long stretches of time, a fact which she noted. Hopefully next time this will be taken onboard, and we will see a bit more diversity on our screens for the next election, whenever that may be...

By Katie Murphy