Assembly elections: All change for Northern Ireland

As Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill arrived at the Titanic Convention Centre in Belfast, supporters cheered, and surged forward. All that could be seen over the sea of heads – and the cameras held aloft – were the hugs as they embraced their newly elected MLAs.

In this count centre, there were plenty of them. A succession of Sinn Féin candidates had romped home. Danny Baker in West Belfast, Gerry Kelly and Carál Ní Chuilín in North Belfast, Deirdre Hargey in South Belfast, Sinead Ennis and Cathy Mason in South Down – all had topped the poll and been elected on the first count.

Earlier, all the cameras had been for the Alliance Party. Kellie Armstrong, the first of the MLAs elected, spoke of an Alliance “surge . . . I’m not going to say a tidal wave at this moment in time, because we’ve a long time to go yet, but it’s amazing and it’s being shown in the vote today.”

Party sources talked of gaining potentially as many as eight seats, which would be transformative for the party and would greatly strengthen its hand when arguing for a change in the political structures at Stormont to reflect the shift away from traditional orange and green allegiances. This notwithstanding, on the green side of that equation it was as if Sinn Féin couldn’t put a foot wrong.

Among Sinn Féin sources, the feeling was that they would secure at least the 27 seats they took in the last election – and appeared to confirm the consistent polling which had put Sinn Féin well ahead of the other parties, not least the DUP.

Nationalist first

For the first time in the North’s history, a nationalist party is poised to take the largest number of seats, and with it the position of first minister – a message both it and the DUP had emphasised during the election campaign. It was this, said the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, that had left his own party “in a squeeze” in a number of constituencies. “They didn’t like being told by [DUP leader] Jeffrey Donaldson that a nationalist couldn’t be first minister, so they went out and voted for Sinn Féin in big numbers.”

Privately Sinn Féin sources acknowledged this was a factor, though publicly its representatives focused on the success of its pitch on social issues, not least cost of living, and the desire of voters to see the Executive up and running. Inevitably demographic change and the increasing number of young, Catholic voters has also played its part. This all despite the fact that the roles of first and deputy first minister are a joint office and its significance is symbolic rather than practical.

Inevitably, for all Sinn Féin played down the first minister issue during the election campaign, it will also give a great boost to its campaign for a Border poll and for Irish unity – particularly if, as it hopes, it is also soon in government on both sides of that Border. This is for the future, though one imagines it will do nothing to reassure a fractured unionism. In the meantime, the more pressing matter at hand is the formation – or not – of an Executive post-election.

Throughout Friday, senior DUP representatives reiterated the party’s position that it would not go back into the Executive unless issues around the Northern Ireland protocol, which is opposed by unionists, were resolved to its satisfaction – a prospect which seems further away than ever. There is also the question of whether if, as appears likely, the DUP is returned as the second-largest party, it would share power with a Sinn Féin first minister, something the party leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, notably refused to answer during the election campaign.

DUP focus

Speaking to The Irish Times on Friday, the former DUP leader, Edwin Poots, said the party “wouldn’t be happy” with Sinn Féin taking the first minister position, but added “we’re a democratic party, we have to take that decision at an officer and Executive level” and stressed his party’s current focus was the protocol. In this its direction will inevitably be swayed by the performance of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), the hardline, anti-agreement unionist party which has done better than expected in terms of first preferences.

Though the final tally of seats remains to be seen, the DUP’s vote share is down and transfers from TUV – which has seen its own go up – will be crucial for the DUP. It is expected to lose several seats which will bring it in behind Sinn Féin – hence Donaldson’s warning that unionism “simply cannot afford the divisions that exist” and there are seats that might be lost because of it.

Other seats that might be lost are those belonging to the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, both of whom had a bad day. Alliance’s good day appears to have come mainly at their expense. Seats where Alliance is confident, such as South Down and Upper Bann, will see it taking former SDLP seats, or in the case of North Down and possibly South Belfast, that of the Green Party.

In Strangford, Conor Houston – which the SDLP felt was its best chance of a gain – polled only 2,440 first-preference votes, not enough to be in with a shout of a seat, while the party’s deputy leader Nichola Mallon, the outgoing minister for infrastructure, was under threat in North Belfast. Also in Strangford, the UUP’s Mike Nesbitt, a former party leader, was disappointed with his tally of 3,693 first preferences. Veteran MLA Roy Beggs lost his seat in east Antrim and the party leader, Doug Beattie, was in jeopardy in Upper Bann.

In this election, they made their appeal to the middle ground. The challenge for both parties in the future will be how to carve out a space in a pitch increasingly dominated by Alliance. In the short term though, for most candidates the most pressing concern remains that of getting elected. Whatever way the final counters fall, the board has changed.

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