Northern Ireland: A remarkable election in some respects but gridlock remains

Outcome confirms institutions and political culture continue to be mired by sectarian headcount politics

 

The question remains exactly the same. Status quo ante restored: will Arlene Foster resign or step aside as First Minister pending the inquiry into the extraordinary fiasco of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme? Will no-one pay a political price for a scandal that would have cooked the goose of a responsible minister in any “normal” parliament? Except here, it would seem most unfairly, the leader of a political party uninvolved in the management of the RHI, the Ulster Unionist Party’s Mike Nesbitt, who has fallen on his sword after his party lost six seats by preaching moderation.

The North’s election has resolved nothing except to expose once again the reality that its institutions and its political culture remain mired in and gridlocked by sectarian headcount politics. It’s not just that voters continue loyally, depressingly, to support the most tribal parties, and in increasing numbers, but that the dynamics within communities are such as to inhibit even any real internal accountability. Unionism and its voters, driven by the imperative of at all costs defeating Sinn Fein, can clearly not even put its own house in order.

It was not a good election for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) , although not as bad as it might look. The DUP lost 10 seats of its 38, but the hit has to be seen in the context of Stormont being cut from 108 to 90 members. The DUP lost half the 18-seat reduction, but lost only one percentage point of its vote share. It retains three more seats in the Assembly than a proportional allocation by vote share would justify. The party will lose out, however, in the allocation of ministerial portfolios under the complicated D’Hondt voting system.

And the significance of Sinn Fein’s moderate four percentage point gain has been amplified by the symbolism of the loss for the first time by unionism, in its several manifestations, of its overall majority at Stormont. Speaking in West Belfast, Adams described his party’s performance as a “watershed moment”, although nationalists still remain some way from any overall majority of their own. But , just 1,168 first preference votes separated Sinn Fein from the DUP.

Should the negotiations between Sinn Fein, the DUP over the next three weeks forestall direct rule from Westminster and achieve restoration of the executive – and there were hints from both sides yesterday of possible movement – one welcome effect of the election will be the loss by the DUP of its effective veto. The party needed 30 votes to trigger a “petition of concern”, a mechanism that emerged from the Belfast Agreement to protect either community from measures which did not have cross-community support. It became a crude tool of one party. The DUP had been the only party which could use the petition on its own, and had done so regularly, notoriously to defeat gay marriage which enjoyed majority and cross-community backing.

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