On March 2, Northern Ireland will hold a snap election, triggered by a breakdown in the power sharing government. While Stormont has been dysfunctional for years, several factors brought the situation to a head, specifically Brexit and the Renewable Heat Initiative scandal.
Additionally, a reduction in the number of Assembly members will have an effect. A likely outcome of the election is that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will still end up as the largest party, but with Sinn Fein coming in as a close second and controlling a similar number of seats. This near-equal level of power would end the built-in dominance of unionists in Northern Irish politics.
The election will also see the end of the political career of Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister who is stepping aside due to illness. He will be a major loss to Sinn Fein.
Two women will thus lead the two major parties, an unprecedented reality in Northern Ireland. with McGuinness replacement Michele O’Neill facing off against DUP leader Arlene Foster
In the decade since the DUP and Sinn Fein took over the Executive in 2007, control of the Assembly has been quite stable, with the two largest parties typically separated by around ten seats. There are currently 18 multi-member constituencies, where members are elected through single transferable vote.
On June 22, the “Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016” received Royal assent, which reduced the number of members in each constituency from six to five. According to an analysis by Nicholas Whyte based on the 2016 election results, Sinn Fein, the DUP, and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) each stand to lose five seats, with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and other smaller parties losing fewer. Therefore, the unionist camp stands to lose more from slimming the Assembly than nationalists.
Beyond this structural issue, a local scandal involving a program called the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) will likely have the greatest impact on the outcome of the election. A debacle set to cost the government nearly £500 million, the RHI scheme was developed by the Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Investment (DETI) and ran from 2012 to 2016.
It incentivized businesses and other non-domestic properties to use alternative sources of energy, such as biomass (hence the local name for the scandal: “Cash for Ash”), for which it would reimburse £1.60 for every £1 spent on heating, with payment guaranteed for a period of 20 years.
However, the way DETI structured the program, participants were incentivized to waste fuel. Eventually, a whistleblower came forward to report that many participants had been heating previously unheated structures, such as farm sheds and fraudulently receiving reimbursements.
Beyond the staggering monetary cost of this incompetence, First Minister Arlene Foster was the Minster of DETI and it is alleged that she and her team ignored the warnings. Furthermore, after she had moved on to another position, she is alleged to have put pressure on her successor, Jonathan Bell, at DETI not to close down the scheme and attempted to hide her involvement in the program. When Bell revealed the alleged wrongdoing in an interview on December 15, he was formally suspended by the DUP and will be standing as an independent this cycle.
Pressure from the other parties began to mount on Foster, who had since become First Minister. The Assembly was recalled on December 19 to debate the scandal and vote on a motion of no confidence in Foster.
After a series of contentious sessions, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned on January 9. Sinn Fein’s refusal to nominate a replacement triggered the upcoming election. The Assembly also voted in favor of a public inquiry into the RHI program.
The RHI scandal has disproportionately damaged the DUP compared to the other parties. Foster herself is personally tainted from the episode and other leaders, such as new Sinn Fein chief Michelle O’Neil, have refused to work her while the inquiry is under way.
In fact, this is the second DUP leader in a row to be personally involved in an ethics scandal involving public funds. Therefore, casual unionist voters may decide not to support a scandal ridden party with a weakened leader and send their transfers to smaller parties such as the Alliance Party. The DUP is clearly nervous and trying to rally the base: in a press conference launching their manifesto Foster made a 20-minute speech attacking Sinn Fein, in which she mentioned the rival party 32 times, compared to 14 mentions of her own party.
While the United Kingdom as a whole voted in favor of Brexit on June23, 2016, a majority of voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union by a margin of 55.8% to 44.2%, despite the unionist parties campaigning to leave.
Indeed, pro-European sentiment remains strong in Northern Ireland, and many may decide to punish the pro-Leave parties in the first election since the referendum on Europe. This is reflected in the significantly higher turnout in the Brexit referendum and the Assembly election seven weeks before: in the former, 62.7% of eligible voters cast ballots, as opposed to 54.9% in the latter.
A thorny aspect of Brexit particular to Northern Ireland is its 310-mile land border with the Republic of Ireland. One consequence of leaving the EU Customs Union would be border checks, in contrast to the easy flow of goods, people, and capital currently enjoyed by business and travelers. A return to a hard border, similar to the one that was in place during the Troubles, is fiercely opposed by the Irish government and is especially distressing to people living near the border, which may affect transfers in those seats.
One part of the border issue that is not likely to factor into this election cycle is the idea of a “border poll” or a vote on a united Ireland. The idea remains relatively unpopular, even among nationalists, as most seem content with the status quo. This may change in the future, but for now it remains a pipe-dream of nationalist true-believers.
Taken together, there are several reasons to believe that this election may bring more change to Stormont than any since the restoration of devolved government in 2007. First, the reduction in the number of seats disproportionately affects unionists. Second, the RHI scandal is rocking the most powerful party. Finally, the consequences of Brexit on Northern Ireland will have a strong effect on some voters.
As a result, the most likely outcome is that the DUP will lose several seats and remain the largest party. Sinn Fein will come in a strong second, largely closing the gap between the two largest parties. Leveling power in the Assembly will end the long-time dominance of unionists.