Following the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister on January 9th over the ongoing Renewable Heating Initiative (RHI) and the fallout from it, elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly have been set for March 2nd by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villers. This followed the refusal of Arlene Foster (the leader of the DUP and First Minister) to step aside during an enquiry into RHI. The last elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly took place only on the 5th of May 2016, so this is has been extraordinarily short session for the Assembly.
This election will also see the number of seats in the Assembly reduced, going from 108 to 90 seats. This will be achieved by removing one seat from each of the 18 Constituencies in Northern Ireland meaning that they all now have 5 Assembly Members (MLAs). As the electoral system in Northern Ireland is the same as in the Republic (PRSTV), it will now mean that the quotas to be deemed elected will be higher.
A number of parties are testing out their new leaders at this election. Sinn Fein have selected Michelle O’Neill (Mid-Ulster) to be their new leader following the resignation of Martin McGuinness as leader due to ongoing health issues. The Alliance Party also have a new leader going into this election; Naomi Long (Belfast East) was elected the new leader of the party in October 2016 following David Ford’s resignation.
The state of the parties going into this election are as follows:
- DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) – 38 Seats
- Sinn Fein – 28 Seats
- UUP (Ulster Unionist Party) – 16 Seats
- SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) – 12 Seats
- Alliance Party 8 – Seats
- Greens – 2 Seats
- People before Profit – 2 Seats
- TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) – 1 Seat
- Independent 1 – Seat
As the Northern Ireland Executive is governed by an enforced coalition between Unionists and Nationalists, it is likely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will again be forming the executive following the decision in the last Assembly of the UUP and SDLP to withdraw from the Executive.
As well as the parties currently represented in the Assembly, the elections will also be contested by the Northern Ireland Conservatives, Cross Community Labour Alternative, the PUP, Workers Party, Citizens Independent Social Thought Alliance (formerly Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol, CISTA), UKIP and a number of Independents.
A total of 228 candidates, made up of 158 (69%) men and 70 (31%) women are contesting the 90 seats available. This is down from the 276 candidates who contested the 2016 elections. The DUP is running the most candidates, running 38, while Sinn Fein are running 34. The UUP have 24 candidates while both the SDLP and Alliance are running 21. The Greens are running a candidate in every constituency, giving them 18 candidates total. UKIP are running the least number of candidates with only one candidate in the running. The PUP are running three candidates, while CISTA is running four.
People Before Profit, who surprised many at last year’s elections, are increasing their number of candidates to seven. The TUV have 14 candidates running under their banner, the Conservatives 13, while the Workers Party have five and Cross Community Labour four.
The DUP have the worst gender balance of the major Northern Irish parties running just eight female candidates, while the Greens have managed a perfect 50:50 split running 9 women and 9 men.
Recent polling for LucidTalk have shown a decline in support for the DUP dropping to 25.9% down from the 29.2% it achieved in the Assembly Elections in 2016. The polling which took place between 26th and 28th showed increases for all the other parties. Most parties increase by about 1%, Sinn Fein was up to 25.1% from 24%, the UUP support was up to 13.9% from 12.6%, the SDLP increase to 12.4% from 12%, the TUV registered at 4.3% up from 3.4%. The Alliance Party registered the largest growth up nearly 2% from 7% to 8.9%.
2 MLAs will be standing as Independents this time around. Jonathan Bell, who was suspended by the DUP as he gave an interview on RHI which was not sanction by the party, will stand as Independent in Strangford. Gerry Mullan was deselected by the SDLP in favour of John Dallat in East Londonderry, and will contest the election as an independent.
Whatever the result of the elections this March, we are not likely to see a new Executive formed very quickly. RHI is only one of many issues hanging over the Northern Ireland Executive. Maybe the DUP and Sinn Fein will be more cautious in their dealings with one another, or play hardball. With the enforced coalition between Unionists and Nationalists, it could be the summer before all is up and running again at Stormont. For now we get to watch it all play out on twitter on #AE17.