The public response of the two largest parties to the result of the Assembly election does not suggest they have begun to reckon with its deeper implications. For Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill, now in line to become First Minister, the outcome "ushers in a new era" for the North. Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), for his part declared that his party had done "extremely well" and that unionism had "stood its ground". Presumably both Sinn Féin and the DUP privately take a more realistic view of an election that has profoundly changed Northern Ireland – if not in ways they seem to recognise.
For the past 20 years, it has been clear that the unionist vote is in decline
Sinn Féin is understandably jubilant at having emerged as the largest party. It is of genuine significance that a nationalist party has topped the poll for the first time since Northern Ireland was created a century ago. At the same time, however, Sinn Féin knows well that its success was largely due to a unionist split that harmed the DUP. The Sinn Féin vote increased by only 1 per cent and it returns to the Assembly with its seat total unchanged at 27. While the party this weekend talked up the possibility of a border poll, it studiously downplayed the idea during a campaign that focused on socio-economic policy.
The real story of the election – the deep, structural shift that it confirms – is the remarkable growth of the centre-ground. The Alliance Party, drawing support from those who do not wish to be identified primarily as unionist or nationalist, more than doubled its seats to 17, making it the third force in Northern politics. For the past 20 years, it has been clear that the unionist vote is in decline and the nationalist vote, despite demographic trends ostensibly working in its favour, has been broadly static. The once-silent – and sidelined – middle has now found its voice.
By calling for a relatively quick border poll that it knows would not win majority support, Sinn Féin chooses to talk not to that middle ground but to its core supporters. Similarly, the lesson the DUP appears to have drawn, when faced with challenges on both flanks – from Alliance and the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice – and having seen the surge in the centre is that it must double down on the narrow concerns of its staunchest voters. The party will likely refuse to enter a new Executive until it receives face-saving changes to the Northern Ireland protocol – a mechanism that a clear majority of MLAs elected on Thursday say they wish to make work.
As a result of these simultaneous retreats into tribal comforts by Sinn Féin and the DUP, Northern Ireland is unlikely to have a functioning Executive for quite some time, and political debate for the foreseeable future will be dominated by institutional stasis and circular constitutional argument rather than the pressing social and economic issues that the public so clearly prioritise.