Welcome hints of change in North

 

The Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin remain the dominant forces in Northern Ireland politics after last week’s Assembly elections, but there are interesting signs they will not get their way quite as easily in the Northern Executive’s next term of office.

The DUP’s campaign based heavily on Arlene Foster’s leadership paid off in maintaining their 38 seats, while Sinn Féin’s share of the vote slipped slightly as they lost one seat to finish with 28. Both parties face criticism and competition from new radical voices after the election of two socialists and two Greens to the Assembly.

The DUP’s strategy of urging voters to support it in order to ensure Sinn Féin did not become the biggest party and secure the First Minister position was aimed at maximising its vote among unionists rather than predicated on realistic fears of such a Sinn Féin breakthrough. Coupled with the emphasis on Ms Foster’s appeal it has paid off in a solid endorsement of her recent leadership.

Longer standing atavist fears among unionists that demographic changes will usher in a nationalist majority in Northern Ireland because of the steadily increasing Catholic population have even less plausibility after this election. There is little or no sign of such a realignment and its presumed template of a united Ireland delivered by way of a sectarian vote in a Border referendum.

Instead, some nationalists and unionists are seeking out a Northern Ireland political identity, prefer alternative cross-community parties, or if they are younger abstain from political participation altogether. The turnout in this election was just under 55 per cent, marginally down on 2011, but involving just more than half of Northern Ireland’s population. This helps explain the paradox that attitudes to issues like gay marriage and abortion are more liberal in public opinion surveys than in party attitudes at Stormont.

That energy is partly visible in the success of two People before Profit and two Green candidates, who will bring welcome diversity to Assembly debates on policy. A similar loosening of the Belfast Agreement’s political structures is visible in the decisions facing the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party on whether to join the executive after their slightly sub-optimal performances in this election.

Nonetheless, the overall picture coming out of the election is of continuity and relative stability for the two dominant parties.

But they cannot be as complacent about the wider setting of the United Kingdom which also determines Northern Ireland’s future. The forthcoming UK vote on whether to leave the European Union has grave implications for Ireland North and South which were not properly discussed in this election campaign. The new Assembly members need to tackle that deficit in the referendum campaign between now and June 23rd.

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