Elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly
A Feature on the Politics of Northern Ireland by Jeff Kildea
In Australia, which uses a majoritarian electoral system, the major parties put forward their platforms to address the problems of the day and the party that wins most seats claims a mandate to implement its program. In other words, elections resolve the political issues of the day – if not the problems themselves. In NI, where the government is drawn from all parties that achieve sufficient representation in the Assembly, elections do not resolve political issues but determine how many places on the Executive Committee each party will receive.
The elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly, scheduled for 5 May 2022, may be the most important in the Assembly’s history. Ironically, they will resolve nothing, but they will set the parameters for what will happen next in this troubled land. And the prospects are not encouraging.
I say the elections will resolve nothing because of the nature of NI’s electoral system. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement prescribed for NI a consociation model of democracy. This model, used in states that have major internal divisions along ethnic, religious, or linguistic lines, aims is to avoid resort to violence by providing governmental stability through power-sharing.
Another weakness of the consociation model is that it requires the collaboration of antagonistic groups. In the 22-year history of the NI Assembly there have been many instances where one party or another has withdrawn from the process, thus suspending the institutions of government. The major nationalist and unionist parties have used non-collaboration as a political tactic so often that some argue that a cycle of crisis and collapse now defines Stormont.
Following the 2017 collapse, which lasted three years, the UK parliament passed legislation limiting the damage from such suspensions. As well, NI’s parties negotiated New Decade, New Approach, designed to stabilise power sharing. The agreement was signed on 9 January 2020 and two days later the parties re-entered devolved government.
Nevertheless, on 4 February 2022 the system collapsed again when the Democratic Unionist Party’s Paul Givan resigned as First Minister in protest at the lack of progress in negotiations between the British government and the European Union over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). His resignation meant that the position of deputy First Minister, held by Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, was also vacated. Under the new legislation, the Assembly continues to function, but it can only deal with business already in progress, and other ministers remain in post, but with limited powers.
This most recent suspension transcends the traditional fractiousness of NI politics in that the dispute is not between NI’s parties but between the DUP and the British government. Unlike previous suspensions, there is nothing the other parties in the Assembly can do to address the DUP’s grievances.
In a democracy with a majoritarian model of government, an imminent election would provide a pathway out of such an impasse. But in NI’s case, the forthcoming elections provides no such solution. Already, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, leader of the DUP, has declared that it will be ‘difficult’ for his party to join a government after the elections if issues around the NIP are not addressed.
For the DUP, the ‘issues’ are essentially the existence of a virtual border in the Irish Sea, though the party has also identified practical difficulties with the NIP’s implementation. It is the latter which has been the focus of discussions between the British government and the EU. It is unlikely they will address the former in a manner acceptable to the DUP. Now that the war in Ukraine has dictated the need for Britain and Europe to act more cooperatively, it is improbable that Britain will risk damaging relations with the EU to satisfy NI’s unionists.
So, what can we expect in the run-up to the elections? Some commentators have argued that Givan’s resignation and Donaldson’s talk of the NIP’s existential threat to the union are designed to rally unionists to the DUP’s banner. Since the last elections in 2017, the DUP has been losing support on the right to the Traditional Unionist Voice, a unionist party more hardline than the DUP, and on the left to the Ulster Unionist Party, which portrays itself as the voice of moderate, progressive unionism, and to the Alliance Party, which is neither unionist nor nationalist but which appeals to a growing number in NI who wish to move on from the sectarian politics of the past.
In the meantime, Sinn Féin is hoping to become the largest party in the new Assembly. If so, it will be able to nominate the First Minister, with the DUP left to nominate the deputy First Minister, assuming it finishes the largest unionist party. Although the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have equal status under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, a SF member occupying the position of First Minister might be a step too far for some unionists. Indeed, it might be yet another reason why it would be ‘difficult’ for the DUP to form a government after the elections. If so, NI would again be without a devolved government.
The forthcoming elections are important for another reason. Under the NIP, the Assembly must vote next year on the continuation of the protocol’s major trading arrangements. Only a simple majority is required. But, if the elections return a majority of members opposed to the NIP, they could prevent that, potentially eliminating the border in the Irish Sea. Polling suggests that such a majority is unlikely, but it provides another reason for the DUP to ramp up its rhetoric.
May’s elections will not resolve outstanding political issues, but they will decide the future governance of NI. If unionist voters reject the DUP’s rhetoric and support the UUP or Alliance, a potential crisis might be averted. Alternatively, the DUP might pull back from its threat of non-collaboration once the votes have been cast. At this stage it is too early to predict what might happen. But one thing is for sure, the sense of crisis that dominates politics in NI is not about to go away anytime soon.
Dr Jeff Kildea
Honorary Professor in Irish Studies, University of New South Wales