Michelle O’Neill’s election as NI's next first minister unlikely to be swift

DUP’s protocol demands could lead to protracted negotiations and possible re-run

Sinn Féin will nominate Michelle O’Neill as the North’s first minister this week after it won the largest number of seats in the Assembly election.

It would be the first time in Northern Ireland’s history for the position to be held by a nationalist.

“Today represents a very significant moment of change,” said Ms O’Neill in her acceptance speech as she was elected in her constituency of Mid Ulster. “Irrespective of religious, political or social backgrounds my commitment is to make politics work,” she said.

The party successfully retained the 27 seats it took in the last election to return the same number of Assembly members (MLAs) as in 2017.

The DUP lost three seats to return 25 MLAs. This will entitle it to the role of deputy first minister, though it has signalled it will not take up the position until issues around the Northern Ireland protocol – which the party opposes – are resolved to its satisfaction.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said his party had "held its ground" and the unionist vote remained strong. Speaking on the BBC, he said the party's officers would meet this week to consider "what we need to do now to get the action that is required from the [UK] government."

As the roles of first and deputy first minister are a joint office, and one cannot hold power without the other, it is unlikely a functioning Executive can be formed and there will be a period of negotiation, which could initially last up to six months. If the deadlock cannot be resolved, there could be another election.

Alliance gains

The other big winner was the cross-community Alliance Party, which more than doubled its number of seats compared with 2017, returning 17 MLAs.

Alliance leader Naomi Long stressed the importance of a functioning Executive, saying "we need to get in there [Stormont] on Monday because without government we can't deliver anything in Northern Ireland.

“I think given all the challenges that we face, if we squander this opportunity people will not forgive us, so we need to get in there,” she said.

Sinn Féin added 25,000 to its tally from 2017 to take more than 250,000 first-preference votes and increased its share of the first preference vote by one per cent to 29 per cent.

The DUP saw its number of first-preference votes drop by 40,000 to 184,000, and its vote share drop by almost 7 per cent, to 21 per cent.

Alliance took more than 116,000 first preferences – an increase of almost 44,000 compared with 2017 – and increased its vote share by 4.5 to 13.5 per cent.

It leapfrogged the UUP and SDLP to become the third-largest party in the Assembly and will now be entitled to an additional ministry in the Executive.

The big loser was the SDLP, which lost four seats to take it to eight – with a drop of 2.9 in its percentage vote share to leave it at 9 per cent – as the party saw itself squeezed between Sinn Féin and Alliance.

The highest-profile candidate to lose a seat was the party's deputy leader and outgoing minister for infrastructure, Nichola Mallon, who lost out to Alliance's Nuala McAllister in north Belfast.

Big upset

Another big upset came in North Antrim, where Patricia O'Lynn became both the first Alliance MLA and the first female to take a seat in the constituency, defeating DUP veteran Mervyn Storey in what had previously been considered a DUP heartland.

Though for a time the UUP leader Doug Beattie and one of its high-profile MLAs, Mike Nesbitt, were under threat, both survived and retained their seats; its percentage vote share dropped by 1.7 to 11.2 per cent, with a final tally of nine seats – a loss of one.

Despite its increase in vote share the Traditional Unionist Voice failed to pick up any seats beyond that of its leader, Jim Allister, after its best chance of a second seat, Stephen Cooper, was eliminated in Strangford.

The Green Party – which previously held two seats – lost its entire Assembly representation after its outgoing MLAs, including party leader Clare Bailey, failed to win re-election.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times

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