Northern Ireland elections: There is an elephant in the room

A period of direct rule from London looms just as UK begins talks on withdrawing from the EU

 

Northern Ireland goes to the polls next Thursday after a campaign that has not so far adequately addressed the major issues it faces. Power-sharing between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin is challenged by a collapse of trust and respect. Since other parties are unlikely to get enough seats a prolonged period of direct rule is probable. That would come just as the British government invokes Brexit, creating huge uncertainty about the Border and hence the peace process itself. This issue has not had the attention or debate it deserves in the campaign.

The election was triggered by Arlene Foster’s refusal to stand aside as First Minister while the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme overspend scandal is investigated. She and her party turned it into a battle of confidence, while Sinn Féin, in refusing to rejoin the executive, focussed on her increasing arrogance after winning last year’s Assembly election. The campaign has certainly aired many unanswered questions relating to the scheme. Polling indicates support for the DUP and its leader is weakening despite her dire warnings that a vote for other unionists would benefit Sinn Féin’s aim to become the first party.

Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, attracted particular criticism from her for suggesting voters should give preferences to the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Were that to happen in any widespread way it could open up a cross-community dynamic alongside the growth of “others”, including Alliance party, the Greens and People Before Profit candidates trying to break out of the entrenched unionist-nationalist divide. But research for the Electoral Reform Society into last year’s elections indicates a mere six or eight per cent support for such transfers. Turnout was only 52 per cent then and does not look like increasing. So it still looks most likely that the DUP and Sinn Féin will emerge as the dominant parties, not least because the overall number of seats is being reduced from 108 to 90.

If they can’t agree on a new power-sharing deal a period of direct rule from London looms. For this to happen just as the UK begins negotiations on withdrawing from the European Union would be the worst of both worlds. Even though the DUP and Sinn Féin took opposite positions on Brexit in the referendum Northern Ireland voted against leaving by 56 to 44 per cent. The two parties in government showed some willingness to find common ground in defending the North’s interests and in talking to the Government in Dublin on how best to defend them at European level.

That essential task is made much more difficult during the election and in any impasse after it, when London would be preoccupied with its own interests. It would then fall to the Government to give voice to Ireland’s interests North and South in the Brexit talks.

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