With polling day just under a week away, the attention of the British media is almost entirely focused on what local election results may mean for the two biggest parties in Westminster. A pattern of Labour gains across northern England could signify that Keir Starmer has succeeded in winning back the red wall, while a kicking for the Tories could trigger a flurry of no-confidence letters in the Prime Minister. Yet while the London-based media’s attention focuses on localised UK elections, Northern Ireland will elect 90 members to the NI Assembly in what could see a historic shift in the balance of power. Next Thursday, some of the most significant votes to be cast in the UK will be folded and placed into ballot boxes not in Bexley and Barnet, but in Ballymena and Belfast.
If the latest polling is realised in the final result, Sinn Féin’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill will become First Minister. This would mark the first time a Nationalist Party has been the largest in Stormont and therefore the first time Northern Ireland has had a Nationalist First Minister.
Sinn Fein performed incredibly well in the last elections in 2017, gaining votes and seats where the DUP lost both, however it is unlikely that any success this year will be the result of a further surge on their part. Their rise has been bolstered by a torrid year for the Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party. Having only had three leaders from 1971-2021, the DUP have found themselves with three leaders in the last 12 months: Arlene Foster was abruptly removed, Edwin Poots lasted just four weeks, leaving the man he defeated, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, to lead the party into an election after less than ten months in post. Allied to some bumps in the road for UUP Leader Doug Beattie and the ongoing ructions within the Unionist community over the NI Protocol and the scene is set for a potentially historic shift in the political landscape in Northern Ireland.
From Sinn Féin’s perspective, while never shying away from their overall aim of Irish unity, it has not been the key focus in this campaign. Indeed the campaign as a whole has arguably been a little ‘bland’ but that seems to be by design. Arlene Foster’s infamous crocodile comment about Sinn Fein during the last election campaign, backfired spectacularly, revitalising Sinn Fein’s base and wider nationalist communities and saw Unionist parties fail to win a majority of seats in Stormont for the first time. Sinn Fein have been keen to avoid any such mistakes this time round and have to an extent been happy to watch Unionism squabble among itself over the Protocol.
The latest opinion polling gives Sinn Fein a seven point lead, and voices from all corners of the Island have begun to speculate on the potential consequences if they are to hold on to it. While some point to longer term questions about the Union or Irish Unity, the most pressing question will be what this means for the immediate future of the Assembly.
Under the terms of The Good Friday Agreement, there can be no First Minister without a Deputy First Minister. A Sinn Fein First Minister, is something which the DUP and UUP are currently unable, or at least publicly unwilling, to fathom, as the leaders of both parties refuse to confirm whether they would take up the position of Deputy First Minister. Add to that the DUP’s desire for the removal of the NI Protocol as a precondition to returning to Stormont and there are fundamental questions about the return of devolved government to Northern Ireland after the elections in May.
While elections in England, Scotland and Wales could tilt the balance of power within Westminster, the question facing Northern Irish voters as they enter polling booths next week is not just how they will be governed, but if.