The Irish Times view on the Northern Ireland Assembly election: A changing landscape

For 20 years, tectonic plates in Northern Ireland have been shifting underfoot

It may have been a lacklustre campaign season, one that is unlikely to have shifted voting intentions in any decisive way, but the Northern Ireland Assembly election that takes place today could yet have a profound effect on the course of politics north and south of the Border.

The campaign has been shaped by three narrative arcs. The first is the prospect of Sinn Féin emerging with the largest number of seats and taking the office of first minister in the Executive for the first time. The practical effect would be very small – the posts of first minister and deputy first minister are officially of equal rank – but it would be an outcome rich in symbolism.

For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history a unionist would not head its government. That would be a psychological blow for many unionists, coming just five years after an assembly election that showed unionists no longer held a majority position. Sinn Féin would celebrate it as proof of its irresistible rise and seek to maintain that momentum as the general election in the Republic draws closer.

If Sinn Féin does emerge as the largest party, however, it will owe less to an increase in its own popularity – in fact the nationalist/republican vote has been static for 20 years despite supposedly favourable demographic trends – than to a splintering of the unionist vote.

The internal contest for supremacy within unionism has been the second, and the more important, story of the campaign. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), in turmoil as a result of the fallout from a Brexit that it championed, has seen its vote steadily eroded on one flank by the rising Alliance Party and on the other by Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). Jeffrey Donaldson's party has made opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol a centrepiece of its campaign, but the campaign has shown the issue has limited purchase among voters and the DUP has struggled for credibility on the issue. In an election where the outcome hinges on the final seats in some key constituencies, the destination of unionist voters' transfers will be critical. Sinn Féin's risk-averse campaign, showing an eagerness not to mobilise unionist voters to unite against it, reflects that fact.

Arguably the most important long-term trend to watch – and the third key storyline of the campaign – is the “neither” vote. The resurgence of Alliance, the solid vote of the Green Party and People Before Profit and even the important role of the centrist SDLP and UUP in the electoral landscape are all evidence of a growing rejection of a binary choice between the poles of orange and green. For the past 20 years, the tectonic plates in Northern Ireland have been shifting underfoot. Its largest and loudest parties may not reflect that change, but its election results increasingly do.