On May 5th, 2022, voters will head to the polls to elect the new Northern Ireland Assembly.
In what has been repeatedly described as the most important election in a generation, there is the prospect of a nationalist being elected to the top job in government for the first time in more than a century.
Uncertainty remains, however, as to what form the new Assembly will take after the DUP collapsed the Stormont Executive in February in protest over the Northern Ireland protocol, which has effectively created a post-Brexit border in the Irish Sea.
What is the Assembly and what does it do?
The Assembly was created in 1998 as a condition of the Belfast Agreement.
Often referred to as Stormont – Parliament Buildings is located the grounds of the Stormont estate in east Belfast – the Assembly was designed to facilitate powersharing, requiring the biggest unionist and nationalist political parties to form a coalition.
Essentially, it is a devolved parliament with powers to make laws in areas such as health, education, justice, agriculture and the environment. But it has no control in relation to certain areas – such as foreign policy and defence – which come under the Westminster parliament.
There are 90 MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) elected at least every five years from parties belonging to one of three blocs: unionists, nationalists and others.
Ten members of the Assembly also form its Executive – taking decisions on “significant and controversial” issues and on legislation proposed by ministers.
The Executive is chaired by the first and deputy first ministers. Despite their titles, this a joint office with both having equal powers. One cannot exist/make decisions without the other.
Chances of Stormont returning after the election?
Stormont has been mothballed five times since its inception. The last hiatus in 2017 lasted three years and was sparked by the DUP’s handling of a green energy scheme, dubbed the “cash for ash” scandal.
To avoid future collapses of devolution, a new Bill was passed by the Westminster parliament in February this year to allow the Assembly continue without an Executive for at least six months.
So while an Assembly can return, in the wake of DUP first minister Paul Givan’s resignation in February, there will be no Executive to sign off on key decisions such as budgets for the North and programme for government – triggering months of further political instability.
There are 239 candidates in the running for 90 Assembly seats across 18 constituencies. Each constituency has five seats.
Voting will begin across the North’s 606 polling stations at 7am and finish at 10pm.
MLAs are elected using the single transferable vote (STV) system.
Under STV, voters rank candidates in order of preference on a ballot paper. A voter can rank as many or as few candidates as they like, or just vote for one.
Each candidate needs a minimum number of votes to be elected. This is calculated according to the number of seats and votes cast and is called a quota. The first-preference votes for each candidate are added up and any candidate who has achieved this quota is elected.
If a candidate has more votes than are needed to fill the quota, the surplus votes are transferred to the remaining candidates. Those who don’t meet the quota are knocked out, with their votes transferred to other candidates based on preferences given to them by voters. These processes are repeated until all the seats are filled.
Voting in a Pandemic
For the first time, voters attending polling stations will be asked to wear a face mask due to Covid-19 restrictions, but this will not be enforced.
Meanwhile, there is also a new helpline system in place for those with sight impairments.
Opinion polls – seismic shift in North’s political landscape
Successive polls in recent months have put Sinn Féin on course to be the largest party at Stormont after the May 5th election.
If the polls are correct, it will be a watershed moment.
In a state set up in 1921 to a create a safe permanent majority for unionism – a “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people” – a Sinn Féin victory would bring with it the position of first minister and, for the first time in its history, put a nationalist at the head of government in the North.
The DUP – the dominant Stormont party for more than 15 years – is trailing behind its nationalist rivals in the polls and has refused to commit to serving as a deputy first minister to Sinn Féin.
While it is a joint office and Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill cannot take office without a deputy appointed, the symbolism of a nationalist first minister has led to unionist fears that a Border poll on Irish unity will be hastened.
Meanwhile, the polls also show a growth in the so-called “centre ground” vote, with the Alliance party experiencing a surge in its vote.
Polls predict Alliance will be the third biggest Assembly party, a hugely significant development with the population no longer casting their ballots along the traditional green/orange lines.
Alliance also wants a change to the powersharing system created in 1998 – the cornerstone of the Belfast Agreement – calling instead for the Executive to be a voluntary coalition.
Latest figures from the Northern Ireland Electoral Office show the number of eligible voters for the poll is 1,373,731. That’s 119,022 more than five years ago.
There have also been 14,631 postal votes and 6,468 proxy votes granted by the electoral office – and 5,339 applications for these rejected.
As in 2019, the biggest reason for rejection was the digital registration number.
The count of the 1,345 ballot boxes will begin on Friday, May 6 at 9am.
The first results could be declared from lunchtime, with many known later that day.
During the 2017 Assembly election, the south Belfast constituency had the final declaration at 3am.
As in the past, some count centres may pause and start again on Saturday morning. The final results are likely by Saturday afternoon.
Rise in number of women candidates
A record number of women candidates are standing in this year’s Assembly election, with 87 running for seats.
Back in the first Assembly in 1998, just 14 out of 108 MLAs were women, amid concerns misogyny was rife in the North’s political arena.
Prof Monica McWilliams, a co-founder of the Women’s Coalition party, was among the first of the 14 and recalled one DUP member shout “moo! moo! moo!” as she was giving a speech.
During talks with former US senator George Mitchell – who chaired The Belfast Agreement talks and helped broker the deal – the Women’s Coalition members heard themselves referred to as “typical little housewives” who should only be at a table “they were going to polish”.
By 2022, women represented about one-third of MLAs.
KEY CONSTITUENCY BATTLEGROUNDS
All eyes will be on the nationalist battle for Foyle following a controversial shake-up of Sinn Féin to win back votes lost to SDLP rivals.
Veteran Derry republican Martina Anderson, a former MEP and convicted IRA bomber, had to give up her MLA post last summer, a move she denounced as a “body blow” .
Disastrous Sinn Féin performances in the 2019 council and Westminster elections – the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood won back the Sinn Féin seat from sitting MP Eisha McCallion in a landslide victory – led to Anderson and fellow MLA Karen Mullan standing down following a party “internal review”.
Following on from Eastwood’s success, the SDLP is targeting Foyle – the stronghold of John Hume for decades – and is hoping to gain a third Assembly seat.
With Sinn Féin on course to become the largest party at Stormont, its clearout of high-profile members may leave it vulnerable in this constituency , where it held two seats.
A seat loss would have a major bearing on the party’s overall ambition to take Stormont and secure the first minister post.
DUP junior minister Gary Middleton is hoping to retain his Foyle Assembly seat – which he held last time round with just over 700 votes – but could fall victim to a split in the unionist vote due to challenge from the UUP candidate.
One of the most hotly contested constituencies, DUP leader and MP for the area Jeffrey Donaldson is running on an Assembly ticket saying he wants to lead his party at Stormont.
Donaldson is a shoo-in along with his running mate Paul Givan, the former first minister who collapsed the Executive with his resignation in February over the protocol.
However, it is the battle for the fifth seat that makes this race so interesting as Alliance is fielding its rising star, Sorcha Eastwood, following her remarkable performance in the 2019 Westminster election where she won almost 29 per cent of votes – reducing Donaldson’s majority from 19,000 to 6,499.
An exclusively unionist stronghold pre-Belfast Agreement, the DUP decision to run only two candidates in Lagan Valley compared to three in the last Assembly election has also pointed to a party worried about its vote amid major internal difficulties.
Meanwhile, a surge in the Alliance vote and its decision to field two candidates for the first time could affect the SDLP retaining its fifth seat.
Come May 6th, uncertainty remains as to whether Donaldson will return to Stormont. He has been in no rush to resign his Westminister seat (rules no longer permit “double-jobbing”) since being officially ratified as an Assembly candidate in March.
The only constituency where the DUP holds three seats, the party is under serious pressure to retain its position.
There are also hopes of a nationalist breakthrough in this unionist stronghold – one of seven constituencies in the North that voted in favour of Brexit – with the SDLP’s new candidate, Conor Houston.
A human rights lawyer, Houston has received the backing of Ireland rugby international Andrew Trimble and is a hot favourite to take the third seat at the expense of the DUP.
However, this area is also an important one for the middle ground with Alliance fielding two candidates following a surge in its vote in previous elections.
A former and serving DUP education minister are the party’s two candidates and should get in. But the scrap for the fifth seat will be important in the party’s attempt to become Stormont’s biggest.
If the SDLP do not pick up the fifth seat, they will be in trouble.
Former Ulster unionist leader and television presenter Mike Nesbitt is the lead candidate for his party and should be safe given his profile.
Alliance’s Kellie Armstrong, who topped the poll in the last Assembly election, should also be re-elected.
The centre-ground Alliance party is vying to take the fifth and final seat from Sinn Féin in a constituency where people have voted along traditional nationalist and unionist lines for 20 years.
As one of the North’s most socially deprived areas – taking in Republican Ardoyne and loyalist Mount Vernon – a Sinn Féin loss would be a hammer blow for the party, which is fielding its two veteran incumbents, Gerry Kelly and Carál Ní Chuilín.
Such is the concern about Alliance’s soaring vote and the popularity of its candidates, former lord mayor Nuala McAllister, that Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill has been spotted on the campaign trail in north Belfast in what the party see as a key battleground to defend.
Last time around in the 2017 Assembly elections, McAllister narrowly missed out to Ní Chuilín by less than 560 votes – with the latter getting elected on the sixth count.
The DUP is running two new candidates who, although having no Assembly experience, have strong public profiles at council level and are expected to be returned.
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon is among the party’s most accomplished representatives and has a huge profile as a former Executive minister. While she should regain her Assembly seat comfortably, Mallon may also be nervous about transfer-friendly Alliance.
The ‘crocodile’ election
Former DUP leader Arlene Foster’s infamous “hungry crocodile” gaffe about Sinn Féin prior to the 2017 Assembly election galvanised support for nationalists and set the tone for the campaign.
The 65 per cent turnout for the spring poll was the highest since the Northern Ireland Assembly election in the months after the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
A watershed result followed in 2017, when unionists no longer held a majority position at Stormont.
Foster later admitted she regretted the remark – claiming it allowed Sinn Féin to “demonise” her – made at the launch of her party’s election campaign when she said the DUP would never agree to an Irish language act, adding: “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back for more”.
The 2022 election campaign has been notably gaffe free – with many commentators pointing to the comparatively “safe” and lacklustre messaging across the political spectrum.
Parties standing in your constituency
Of the 239 candidates standing for election, Sinn Féin are fielding the most at 34, followed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who are standing 30.
The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has 27, while Alliance has 24 and the SDLP has 22.
The Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) is fielding 19 candidates, the Green Party has 18 and People Before Profit 12.
Aontú is also fielding 12 candidates, the Workers Party has six in the race and the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) three.
The Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) and the Socialist Party have two candidates each.
The Northern Ireland Conservatives, Cross Community Labour Alternative (CCLA), Resume NI and Heritage Party are all fielding one candidate each.
There are also 24 independent candidates in the field.
Belfast West has the largest number of candidates standing, with 17 going on the ballot paper.
East Antrim has the fewest with 10 candidates standing in the constituency.
What happens next?
The newly elected Assembly must meet within eight days and will be asked to nominate a first and deputy first minister.
In the event of a Sinn Féin win and the DUP refusing to nominate a deputy first minister, Stormont ministers from the last mandate will able to continue in their jobs for another six months – as a result of the Westminster “buffer” Bill to prevent Stormont’s collapse.
In the event of no agreement or Executive formation after six months, a new election could potentially be triggered or further negotiations.
However, if an agreement is reached – or the polls get it wrong and DUP win the election – it appears highly unlikely there will be a sitting Assembly after polling day as DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has made it clear he his party will not go back into the Executive while outstanding issues around the protocol remain unresolved.
The future of Stormont and its powersharing structures are far from certain.