The political landscape in Northern Ireland has changed dramatically with the increase in support for Sinn Féin in the election to the Stormont Assembly where it won 27 seats, only one fewer than the Democratic Unionist Party. Sinn Féin’s share of the vote at 27.9 per cent was only 0.2 per cent lower than the 28.1 per cent achieved by DUP.
The remarkable and generally-unexpected surge by Sinn Féin is attributed to a number of factors. Chief among them is a disillusionment among the nationalist community with the political set-up and a feeling that deprived Catholic areas which suffered greatly during the Troubles have gained little in recent years.
Another reason for the increased backing for Sinn Féin is the wave of sympathy in the nationalist community for outgoing Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, who could not run in the election due to a serious heart condition.
The former Irish Republican Army chief from Derry won plaudits for his peace-making efforts in the last two decades, especially the close friendship he developed with the leader of hard-line unionism, Reverend Dr Ian Paisley (1926-2014), when the two of them headed-up the power-sharing administration.
But the most immediate reason why nationalists turned out in such large numbers this time for Sinn Féin was the antipathy aroused by the actions and comments of senior unionists. Recognition of the Irish language has become a key political issue and grave exception was taken last December when the DUP’s Paul Givan, in his role as Minister for Communities, cut £50,000 ($61,280) in state funding for the Líofa (Irish for “fluent”) bursary scheme which enabled at least 100 people to attend courses in the Irish-speaking area of County Donegal.
This occurred shortly after Givan was filmed playing Gaelic football, seen as a conciliatory gesture because the game is almost-exclusively played by nationalists. The Minister reversed his Líofa scheme cutback within weeks but the resentment among nationalists lingered on and helped to galvanise that section of the population into action on Election Day.
Further annoyance was generated among nationalists over the stance taken on a related issue by DUP First Minister Arlene Foster. Explaining why she could not accede to Sinn Féin demands for an Irish Language Act, she cited the cost of such a measure and said there were more people in Northern Ireland who spoke Polish.
Foster added: “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back for more.” This evoked a humorous response from Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who said: “See you later, alligator.” However, the First Minister’s remarks served to fuel the Sinn Féin revival and some Sinn Féin activists took to wearing crocodile costumes. At a fundraising event for the party in West Belfast, members of the Sinn Féin election team danced in bright green outfits to the tune of Elton John’s Crocodile Rock.
The DUP leader was already embroiled in a raging controversy over the green energy initiative known as the Renewable Heating Incentive. Widely-labelled “Cash-for-Ash”, this was set up in November 2012 and operated by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), where Foster was the minister in charge. However, the cost of the scheme spiralled out of control because of a generous state subsidy for businesses and other non-domestic users that was guaranteed for 20 years.
Claims from a whistle-blower emerged that large and previously-unheated factories were installing boilers to run throughout the year and bring in about £1.5m ($1.84m) over the 20-year time-frame. A farmer was said to be planning to bring-in about £1m ($1.23m) over 20 years to heat an empty shed. The potential total overspend on the scheme is estimated at £400m ($490m).
When Ms Foster refused to step aside as First Minister while an inquiry took place, Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister. This precipitated the collapse of the power-sharing executive and the calling of an election for March 2nd.
Due to his poor health, McGuinness was replaced as Sinn Féin leader in the north by Michelle O’Neill, who was first elected to the Assembly in 2007 for the Mid-Ulster constituency. Despite having a lower profile than her predecessor, she has led the party to its biggest election success so far in Northern Ireland.
Throughout the campaign, Arlene Foster warned against the influence of Gerry Adams, although the latter is a member of southern parliament, Dáil Éireann, and was not standing in the northern election. The DUP can take comfort from the fact that its main rival in the Protestant community, the Ulster Unionist Party, now holds only ten Assembly seats compared with 16 when the election was called and that UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has stepped-down from that position.
The moderate nationalist SDLP has held its previous figure of 12 seats, despite the reduction in overall Assembly membership from 108 to 90. The cross-community Alliance Party also performed well under its highly-articulate leader, Naomi Long, coming back with eight Assembly-members.
Sinn Féin will be pleased to have halted the advance, for the moment anyway, of the left-wing People Before Profit Alliance, who have gone down from two seats to one with the defeat of Derry-based radical activist Eamonn McCann in the Foyle constituency.
If the parties fail to agree on the formation of a new power-sharing executive within three weeks, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, would be legally entitled to call a fresh election. However, it is more likely that a period of direct rule from London would ensue. Wide divisions were opened between the DUP and Sinn Féin during the campaign and it will be no easy task to reach an agreement.