Sinn Féin believes Assembly election will suit party’s interests

Arlene Foster will put pressure on voters to keep First Minister’s office in DUP hands

Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster: Given the sectarian nature of much voting, the DUP will not bleed votes to Sinn Féin. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

It seems certain now. The Irish and British governments have more or less accepted that an Assembly election is pretty much inevitable, privately acknowledging that their real focus is on the post-election process.

It’s not the future of the current Executive they are concerned about. It’s the next Executive – and whether it can be formed at all – that they are increasingly concentrating on.

The election will come about because of Sinn Féin. The party is pushing for an election not just because of the “cash for ash” scandal, but because it believes such a course is in its interests. These include both its narrow political interests as well as the broader nationalist and equality agenda (as defined by it), to which it is dedicated.

More bluntly, Sinn Féin also wishes to teach the DUP a lesson. That is how they see it.


February 23rd and March 2nd are the dates that are knocking around.

Public anger

Sinn Féin believes the DUP is under pressure because of public anger over the “cash for ash” scandal, which has broken into public consciousness in a way that the daily comings and goings of politics and Stormont do not. Voters have switched on to the issue which has to be bad for the DUP, Sinn Féin believes.

Sinn Féin also believes DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster is damaged by the controversy. She has certainly been receiving a great deal of criticism, including from unionist and independent quarters.

It would require a huge collapse in the DUP vote for Sinn Féin to become the largest party, and few believe such an outcome is likely. The gap between the two is currently 10 seats.

Of course, given the sectarian nature of much voting, the DUP will not bleed votes to Sinn Féin. However, it might bleed them to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) or to independent unionists. And in elections, just as in war, my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

Perhaps the key dynamic of the forthcoming campaign will be the extent to which Foster can persuade DUP voters annoyed by the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme to overcome their distaste in order to maintain the party’s Stormont hegemony. Keeping Sinn Féin out of the First Minister’s office will almost certainly be one of the main themes of the DUP’s campaign.

Succession plans

Martin McGuinness’s illness may have accelerated the party’s leadership’s succession plans. Whatever else 10 years of unbroken government in Stormont has yielded for Sinn Féin, it has not produced an obvious successor to McGuinness in the North in the way that Mary Lou McDonald has been groomed in the South.

The announcement that Minister for Health Michelle O’Neill will be the most senior member of the party’s team at Stormont in his absence is, according to senior Sinn Féin sources, as good a sign as any that she is likely to succeed him, though Newry and Armagh MLA Conor Murphy was the name more often mentioned earlier this week.

However, there is an unmistakable sense that this is happening before Sinn Féin is entirely ready for it. In those circumstances, fighting an election is a useful exercise for the party, giving it an external focus and also buoying up its esprit de corps.

Sinn Féin faces threats itself, of course. Northern Ireland is not immune to the anti-establishment mood sweeping western politics, and Sinn Féin is part of the political establishment in the North, like it or not. Its vote fell in last year’s Assembly election, when People Before Profit won its first seats, in West Belfast (directly at Sinn Féin’s expense) and Foyle.

However, there is little doubt that Sinn Féin wants this election. Few of the other players would say the same.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times