Sinn Féin, the Irish republican party, has made major gains over the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) in a snap election, leaving the two blocs poised to begin new power-sharing negotiations in Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly.
The makeup of the elected chamber has been significantly altered as Sinn Féin made major gains over the DUP in a snap vote called after the collapse of the last government.
Having entered the election 10 seats ahead of Sinn Féin, the DUP’s advantage was slashed to a solitary seat as the republican party’s support surged.
The results mean the DUP no longer has the numbers to veto reforms in Northern Ireland such as gay marriage equality, after it slipped below the number of seats required to do so in the Stormont assembly.
A party can only trigger a “petition of concern” if it has 30 seats in the Northern Ireland assembly. As it has fallen under the 30-seat threshold, the DUP no longer has a veto if, for example, other assembly members propose to make gay marriage equal in the province. By dropping from 38 seats in the last regional parliament to 28, the DUP is still the largest party but will no longer be able to use a special power-sharing mechanism designed to shoot down legislation such as loosening the region’s strict anti-abortion laws.
The DUP has used the legislation in previous assemblies to veto a series of social policy proposals. The power was originally designed under the 1998 Good Friday agreement to veto any laws that alienated the minority nationalist community.
However, the DUP used the mechanism to veto liberal legislation that its evangelical Christian wing opposed. The petition of concern is invoked when one of the two main parties claims there is not enough cross-community support for laws that assembly members try to bring in at Stormont.
In the last Stormont parliament unionist parties had an outright majority, which they have now lost. The balance of power in the new parliament now rests with cross-community, environmental and leftwing parties, with the Alliance party in particular in a strong position.
The other nationalist force in Northern Ireland, the Social Democratic and Labour party, also bounced back from earlier setbacks on Friday to secure 12 seats, giving it two more than the Ulster Unionists, whose leader, Mike Nesbitt, resigned on Friday night following his party’s poor showing in the election.
Nesbitt said it would have been the “height of hypocrisy” if he had not taken personal responsibility for the UUP’s poor showing in the election.
Overall, the pro-unionist parties have 40 seats while the nationalists have 39. The cross-community, non-aligned bloc now stands at 11.
In the wake of the DUP’s losses, Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s Lagan Valley MP, said “lessons need to be learned” over the result. Donaldson said the “fracturing of unionism” did not serve the pro-union community well in this election.
Questions are now being asked in the DUP over the leadership of Arlene Foster, the previous first minister of Northern Ireland. Foster’s refusal to temporarily resign from office while a public inquiry was held into a bungled green energy scheme took place triggered the collapse of the last power-sharing executive. That decision, at a time when her party was the dominant force in the coalition, is now being seen as a major political error.
All 90 seats were declared on Saturday morning with 28 to the DUP, Sinn Féin on 27, the SDLP with 12, the Ulster Unionists falling to 10, the cross-community Alliance party with eight, the Green party securing two, the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice coming back with one seat and the leftwing People Before Profit party going down to one. The Independent Unionist and justice minister in the last coalition, Clare Sugden, was also re-elected.
The results mean that the DUP and Sinn Féin will once again lead the negotiations aimed at creating a new power-sharing government in Belfast when they take place on Monday. However, the prospect of the parties reaching agreement in the three-week timeframe imposed by the Northern Ireland secretary, James Brokenshire, appears remote.
If that deadline passes, the government would be obliged to call yet another snap election, but it may instead opt to put Stormont in cold storage and reintroduce direct rule.
Michelle O’Neill, who replaced a gravely ill Martin McGuinness as leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland at the start of the year, indicated that her resurgent party was still up for a deal to restore power sharing with unionists.
She said: “The vote has increased. I think that is because people knew that action needed to be taken. They have had their say, we now need to get down to the business of fixing what’s wrong and delivering for all citizens.”
The DUP took a major electoral hit over the controversy concerning the scheme that became known as the “cash for the ash” scandal. Owing to poor accounting, the renewable heat incentive resulted in farmers and small businesses making £1.60 for every £1 they invested in boilers fired with wood pellets and other recyclable materials.
It will now cost taxpayers in Northern Ireland an estimated £500m. The DUP was criticised first for championing the scheme through Foster, and then for defending the project despite the spiralling cost to the public purse.
Brokenshire claimed the election results proved that people in the region wanted cross-community, devolved government back in place.
The secretary of state called for “intensive” negotiations between the parties to begin on Monday morning.
Under the terms of devolution, Brokenshire has to give local politicians three weeks to form a new administration in Belfast. After that period threat of direct rule from London casts a shadow over the negotiations.
But Brokenshire insisted his prime goal was to see power-sharing devolution restored. “Northern Ireland has made great strides forward over the past two decades. All of us must continue the work of building a stable, peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland that works for everyone, based on the string foundations of the Belfast agreement and its successors.
“It is with positive intent that the UK government approaches the days ahead. I will be speaking to party leaders during the course of today and remaining in contact with the Irish government,” Brokenshire said.