First time voters in the most recent election to the Northern Ireland Assembly were born in the weeks and months following the Good Friday Agreement. Professor Cathy Gormley-Heenan of the University of Ulster considers whether change is the new constant as #GFAgen comes of age.
In some ways this was an important election. It was the first Northern Ireland Assembly election for Arlene Foster, Mike Nesbitt and Colm Eastwood, as leaders of the DUP, UUP and SDLP respectively, each of whom would have been mindful of the fact that elections are often used as an indicator of a leader’s success. It was also important because a significant number of well known faces in Northern Irish politics were stepping down from office and from public life and so this was a contest with a lot of fresh new faces within the parties and a lot of speculation about the fortunes of some of the smaller and/or newer parties.
But most importantly, the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly election was lauded as the election of the #GFAGen – the Good Friday Agreement generation – of those 18 year olds eligible to vote for the first time in the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly Election who had been born in the days and weeks following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement when the main political protagonists in Northern Ireland agreed on a consociational (or power sharing) form of government with a power sharing Executive. For these first time voters, the conflict in Northern Ireland was from another era, and live debates during the election campaign gave frequent mention of the view from young people that the main political parties did not adequately represent their views and/or that they wanted something different.
At the same time, this was not such an important election. It seemed widely accepted that the composition and rank order of the 5 main political parties would remain largely unchanged with the DUP and Sinn Fein holding on to their positions as the two largest unionist and nationalist parties. The most contentious issues which has caused logjams and disruption to the function of the Assembly and the Executive had, in large part, been addressed in the latest Stormont House Agreement – ‘A Fresh Start’ - and so the focus in this election shifted away from the previous issues of debates about flags, parades and dealing with the past towards bread and butter politics with most manifestos prioritizing health, education and the economy, the big ticket items discussed in elections elsewhere in the UK. But as some say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. After the count was completed on Saturday afternoon and all 108 MLA seats were allocated, it is fair to say that much has changed as a consequence of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. At the same time, much has stayed exactly the same.
First, let’s look at those changes. People Before Profit, a socialist political party with a strong anti-austerity message, won two seats in the new Assembly for the first time, with Gerry Carroll taking a seat from Sinn Fein in West Belfast, a Sinn Fein heartland and Eamon McCann taking another seat in Derry, an SDLP stronghold. The Green Party also gained another seat in this contest with Claire Bailey’s election in South Belfast taking their total to two Assembly seats also. Each of these seats are regarded as neither orange nor green, in the context of Northern Ireland – they are ‘other’ and their MLAs will designate as such on the first day of the new Assembly.
This is an important point because much of the legislation in the Northern Ireland Assembly requires cross community consent, with either a weighted majority or parallel consent by both Unionist and Nationalist designated Assembly members and in such a context the votes of ‘others’ do not count in such calculations. This begs an important question – if people were to continue to turn away from the main political parties towards ‘others’ then how could/should the Northern Ireland Assembly be reshaped and/or reformed to ensure that this increasing voice is not lost within the architecture of the power sharing institutions?
One way of doing so might come into play through the passage of legislation in Westminster recently which allows for the creation of an Official Opposition at Stormont – something that has never been legislated for previously and was introduced through a Private Members Bill brought forward by John McAlister MLA in the Autumn of 2015 – the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016. This legislation gives significant rights to those political parties who would be entitled to hold seats in the Northern Ireland Executive but choose not to go into government, or to a number of parties who do not have enough seats to go into the executive individually but who collectively make up 8% of the total number of Assembly seats. Now that the election is over, speculation has begun over whether the UUP and/or the SDLP will opt out of taking their seats in the Northern Ireland Executive and instead choose to form an opposition. Neither party have ruled out the possibility at this stage though we have two weeks of negotiations ahead to agree the new Programme for Government before the process of d’hondt begins to allocate ministerial portfolios and much could change within that timeframe.
Despite all of the unknowns, the election results indicate that things have also stayed the same. The two largest parties in the power sharing institutions remain the two largest parties. The DUP, despite claims that the Arlene for First Minister Election Campaign was a masterstroke and undermined the advances of the UUP, brought home 38 seats – the same number as in the 2011 election. So this campaign consolidated the DUP vote rather than demonstrated demonstrating any real growth. Sinn Fein lost a seat dropping from 29 in 2011 to 28, in part due to problems with voter management in some constituencies and in part due to the rise in the popularity of People Before Profit. The UUP had won 16 seats in 2011, lost 3 of them during that period due to defections and regained 3 again to give them 16 seats in 2016. The SDLP gained 12 seats overall, a loss of 2 from 2011. And the Alliance returned with 8 seats, with no change from 2011. Overall though, the five main parties dropped in their respective total vote shares with the rise in vote share going to ‘other’ parties.
In a largely lackluster election campaign by all sides, this election will be remembered for slogans and sound-bites more than particular policy pledges. ‘Arlene for First Minister’ might have been a strong electoral message designed to resonate most with unionist voters who may have been considering prioritizing smaller or fringe unionist parties over the DUP in their allocation of preferences on the ballot paper but it masked an important truth – the first minister of Northern Ireland is effectively a ‘joint’ first minister with the deputy first minister. Despite the nomenclature, this is a joint office. The First Minister, as Arlene Foster well knows, can do nothing without the agreement of the deputy first Minister, Martin McGuinnness, despite his seemingly ‘lesser title’. But now that the election is over, it’s down to the real business of jointly agreeing a Programme for Government, making good on the promises made to the electorate during this campaign, implementing the Fresh Start Agreement and addressing all of those issues which did not make the final cut in that Agreement, in particular issues around legacy and dealing with our difficult past.