Northern Ireland Elections: Political stalemate on the cards?
By Declan Hegarty
The Northern Ireland Assembly election on May 5th is “the most important election in a generation”, according to Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O’Neill. Sentiments echoed by DUP Leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who stated, “It is the most important election in a generation and will decide the future direction of Northern Ireland.” A fresh mandate for Northern Ireland offers a chance to reprioritise societal issues for the lives of its citizens. However, sustained political differences mean there is a clear and present danger that no Government will be formed after the May 5th election.
Stormont searching for sustainable solution
The absence of a functioning Assembly is not a new problem. The “New Decade, New Approach” (NDNA) deal agreed in 2020 outlined steps to enable Northern Ireland’s institutions to operate in a caretaker fashion in the event that the Executive collapses. The legislation for this, the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022, provides for an extension of the time that must pass following the resignation of the First or Deputy First Minister before an election can be called by the Secretary of State to six weeks.
Executive Ministers remain in post with limited powers during this time, and the Assembly (Stormont) can proceed with business that was already in progress at the time of resignation. Following an election, the new legislation also extends the window of time available for the appointment of a new First and Deputy First Minister.
On February 3rd 2022, DUP MLA Paul Givan resigned as First Minister of Northern Ireland. This resulted in Sinn Féin Vice-President Michelle O’Neill relinquishing the office of Deputy First Minister. Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, resisted calls for an early Northern Ireland Assembly election, which is due to take place, as planned, on May 5th 2022.
Requisite coalition required
If the polls are anything to go by, Sinn Féin appears poised to return the largest number of Assembly members (MLAs) to Stormont following the election, a victory which would bring with it the position of First Minister for the first time in its history. The emergence of the middle ground will also be revealing, with an increased vote for the cross-community Alliance party likely to be a theme of this election.
The roles of First Minister and Deputy First Minister are reserved for the largest party from the Unionist/Nationalist blocs. Despite the difference in titles, the two roles must be filled in tandem, and one cannot hold office without the other. No Nationalist First Minister can hold power without a Unionist Deputy First Minister, or vice versa. The DUP has, so far, refused to say whether it would agree to share power in this scenario.
Moving gradually forward
It is worth noting, that following the last assembly election in March 2017, there were over three years of deadlock before the Executive was able to sit. Across the political spectrum, parties are already in full campaign mode. Recent discord in communities across Northern Ireland will likely be at the forefront of debate on the doorsteps. However, so will issues including, the rising cost of energy, healthcare, Covid-19, trade disruption and Brexit. Despite the election results coming in after May 5th, the task of building a sustainable power-sharing Assembly is likely to take much longer.