Northern Ireland May Election: The Fate of Stormont - and Unionism - hangs in the balance

By Joshua Taggart 

The 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly election was held on 5th May 2022 and the votes are being counted for the 7th assembly election since its creation in 1998 following the Belfast Agreement. There are 90 member seats up for grabs amid a constitutional and a cost-of-living crisis, and the unionist-nationalist dynamic threatens to be turned upside down for the first time in the nation’s 100-year history. This election is not just crucial for the next 5 years – it is crucial for the fate of government in Stormont. In the wake of the Northern Ireland Protocol highlighting limited Unionist authority in Westminster and their position in the United Kingdom, this election will heavily influence the future of Unionism as a whole.

The outcome of this election will not be a majority-led government for either Unionist or Nationalist parties – the Belfast Agreement requires that a coalition is established to fairly represent both groups in government, and parties must officially be Unionist, Nationalist or non-aligned. While this requisite collaboration can be difficult when views differ on education or housing policy, the aftermath of Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol have raised the stakes to an existential level.

An election to restore Stormont... Again

Although an election was scheduled to take place in May 2022, we’ve seen an elongated campaign period following the main Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), quitting Stormont in protest of the existence of a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the Protocol). As Stormont collapsed over this constitutional argument, it left the Northern Irish people without a government and with many devolved policy areas completely unaddressed. However, the underlying instability of Stormont’s constitutional arrangement is longstanding.

This has happened before: a feud between the DUP and Sinn Féin over a green energy scandal involving First Minister Arlene Foster left Northern Ireland without governance for over 3 years, unofficially breaking the 541-day record set by Belgium in 2010. The power sharing agreement which has defined the Northern Irish constitutional arrangement has collapsed or been non-functional during almost 40% of its existence, according to Channel 4. Not a great statistic.

However, this election is projected in multiple polls to upset the balance of power for the first time in the nation’s history by having Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill as First Minister, with the DUP nominating a Deputy First Minister. Although these titles are ceremonial and functionally identical, even the symbolic significance of a Nationalist First Minister is enough to shake Unionism and Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom to its core.

The existence of Northern Ireland has been synonymous with its status as a part of the United Kingdom. With a Nationalist head of government, the arguments for a referendum on a United Ireland will gain traction, which many fear could spark a backlash from Unionist communities and a return to the political violence and terror of the past. Gains for Sinn Féin in the Republic of Ireland in 2020, combined with a leading position in Stormont, have Unionists worried. With Sinn Féin in power in both North and South, organising a referendum on Irish unity wouldn’t be too far-fetched nor difficult to organise.

Loyalist paramilitary groups have been rioting on a small scale since March, antagonising police and other communities in response to Brexit and the Protocol. Extremist Unionists feel under threat by the Protocol – everyone else feels as though they are being held hostage by threats of Unionist violence if they don’t get their desired outcome.

Can Unionism survive if Sinn Féin become the largest party? Is Stormont sustainable if such a result occurs, or is Stormont even a sustainable governance model at all? Regardless of these constitutional questions, many voters will feel abandoned by parties who focus more on questions of history and identity than tangible issues like the current cost-of-living crisis, declining educational standards and the worst NHS waiting lists in the United Kingdom.

The Manifestos

The parties’ manifestos, of course, include promises in these areas. The DUP is pledging £1bn to cut hospital waiting lists and 20,000 jobs over the next five years, while Sinn Féin promises £230 for each household, £100 to those on benefits who previously benefitted from an energy support scheme and £33 million to extend business rates relief. Crucially, their manifesto also includes a demand for a fixed date for a referendum on Irish unity and an “all-island citizen’s assembly” to arrange for union with the Republic of Ireland. This, however, is a rarely mentioned feature in their manifesto – choosing to focus on more popular policies than Irish unification has benefitted their campaigning.

Meanwhile the Alliance Party, a non-aligned party led by Naomi Long, support a Single Equality Act, a £20-a-week child payment scheme and a voluntary coalition arrangement in Stormont that would require substantial changes to the Belfast Agreement of 1998. Alliance’s strong polling numbers – 19% according to the University of Liverpool – is an indication of voters’ exasperation with the traditional two-party, identitarian dynamic and their search for explicitly non- or bipartisan solutions.

Interestingly, a common theme among both Unionist and Nationalist voters is a lack of concern about Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, or the prospect of Irish unity – one poll notes that the constitutional place of NI in the UK is 11th on a list of concerns for Unionist voters.

What now for Unionism?

The DUP’s primary concern is losing crucial votes and seats to their Unionist rivals – the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) led by Doug Beattie, and the more hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) led by Jim Allister. This three-way split in the Unionist vote has resulted in both tenuous alliances and bitter infighting, with different loyalist communities upset with the DUP for different reasons. The foundations of the ideology, initially a strong base, has now fractured and split, as the more extreme Unionists like the TUV believe that the DUP are spineless and allowing Northern Ireland to be abandoned by Great Britain over Brexit, while the UUP seek to placate Unionist sentiment while decrying the division and “fearmongering” that they accuse the DUP of. Unionist voters themselves, meanwhile, are split on whether they would accept a government with Sinn Féin at the helm, with 45% saying no and 44% saying yes according to a recent LucidTalk poll. All of this contributes to a sense that Unionism is not just under threat at the ballot box but is struggling to emerge from its own identity crisis.

Even if the DUP were to retain the position of First Minister, it is unclear what they can do about the Northern Ireland Protocol when they have only 2 seats in Westminster and the Conservatives see no alternative solution. This essentially leaves us right back where we started, before Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Paul Givan collapsed Stormont in February 2022. Sir Jeffrey could win and then immediately stand down to take his seat in the Commons, leaving a Paul Givan 2.0 to take his place. It’s hard to believe that this series of events would solve anything – the Protocol would still jeopardise NI’s place in the UK, Sinn Féin would still be undermining the DUP with the same slogans and policy proposals (remember the Irish Language Act?) and Unionism would still be stuck between a rock (its traditions and history) and a hard place (Brexit).

This election simultaneously strikes at the heart of Northern Ireland’s existence while saying little to nothing about burning questions on healthcare, climate change and the wider economy. Northern Irish voters will likely be waiting much longer than May 6th for definitive answers. Either we see the greatest political upset since the Troubles began or we return to the same dynamic as before, with little of the volcanic tension underneath being released. Northern Ireland could be facing its version of Groundhog Day, a nightmare that seems to be on endless repeat.

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