Elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly took place on Thursday, 2 March 2017. This was the second time in less than a year that the citizens of Northern Ireland had gone to the polls, following the collapse in January of the power-sharing agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin. These parties were again returned as the two largest parties, but now with only one seat separating them. The parties have three weeks to agree to a new programme for government.
The Northern Ireland Assembly operates on the basis of a power-sharing model of democracy. The system, which was implemented in the Good Friday Agreement following The Troubles, requires that the government, the Executive Committee, must be based on cross-community power-sharing, containing both unionists and Irish nationalists. Northern Ireland uses the d’Hondt system to determine membership of the Executive government, allocating positions proportionally based on the number of Assembly seats the party has. The previous government was comprised of the pro-unionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by First Minister Arlene Foster, and Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin, led by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly use a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system like elections in the Republic of Ireland. STV systems have multi-seat constituencies where voters rank the candidates by preference. The March 2017 elections saw a reduction of 18 Assembly seats since the last elections in May 2016, with 228 candidates contesting 90 seats across 18 constituencies.
This election was the first with Michelle O’Neill as Sinn Féin Northern leader, who replaced Martin McGuinness following his retirement. Following the last Assembly elections, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) formed the first official opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Other parties running were the Alliance Party, the Green Party, the People Before Profit Alliance, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), the Conservative Party, the Workers’ Party, Labour Alternative, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Progressive Unionist Party, the Citizens Independent Social Thought Alliance and a number of Independent candidates.
The last government collapsed in January following Martin McGuinness’s resignation as Deputy First Minister around controversy regarding the green energy scheme, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). As Sinn Féin declined to nominate a replacement, Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire declared Assembly elections.
Along with the RHI, Brexit remained one of the prominent issues throughout the election campaign. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU with a majority of 56 per cent in June 2016. The DUP had advocated for a Leave vote; while Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the UUP and the Alliance Party backed remaining in the EU. Northern Ireland is expected to be adversely affected by Brexit and there are concerns about the prospect of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Turnout at the elections was 64.8 per cent. This was the highest turnout since the elections following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and almost 10 per cent higher than the turnout for the previous Assembly elections in May 2016. The DUP remains the largest party with 28 seats, although their share of first preference votes dropped by 1.1 per cent to 28.1 per cent and they no longer have the 30 seats necessary to invoke a petition of concern, which is a veto mechanism. Sinn Féin had the largest increase in first preference votes, gaining 3.9 per cent to 27.9 cent, and won 27 seats. In this election, the SDLP, which won 12 seats, and the UUP, which won 10 seats, had encouraged vote transfers between the two parties. Having not made major gains, Mike Nesbitt resigned as the leader of the UUP. The other parties which won seats are the Alliance Party (8 seats), the Green Party (2 seats), TUV (1 seat), and the People Before Profit Alliance (1 seat), as well as an Independent (1 seat). The results mark the first time there has not been an overall unionist majority in the Assembly.
By law, parties have three weeks to negotiate and agree to a new programme for government. Negotiations will be led by Secretary of State James Brokenshire and will include Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan. The DUP and Sinn Féin will lead the government negotiations as the two largest parties. Sinn Féin objects to Arlene Foster returning as First Minister while an inquiry into the RHI is carried out.
A majority of the Members returned to the Northern Ireland Assembly represent parties that supported the UK remaining in the EU, and Sinn Féin have called for Northern Ireland to be given ‘special designated status’ within the EU. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has set a deadline to trigger Article 50 to start the process of the UK exiting the EU as the end of March 2017.