Two elections to the local legislative assembly, within a year, have left the political situation in Northern Ireland exactly the same. Only different.
The same because the two largest parties remain the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin (SF). They are the only parties who can form an Executive within the Assembly on numbers only, though other parties, such as the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) could take seats on the Executive. Their recent move onto the opposition benches means that’s unlikely.
Different because the gap between the DUP and SF tightened significantly and the project involving the two smaller parties making up enough ground to catch their rivals in their bid for power shuddered to a halt. The SDLP held their seats, on an increased vote, thus standing still. The UUP got thumped, their leader standing down, even before the final count was concluded.
Speculation is mounting that the rump UUP may, as part of the re-alignments that follow all elections, coalesce with the DUP. A kite-flying notice that they may link with the SDLP will be blown into the air and over the horizon, when their leadership battle commences. Survival is the challenge they face.
The Alliance Party (AP) fared well, in their terms, increasing their votes significantly. It has to be noted that all parties increased their vote, as the overall turnout increased, reaching 64.8%, up from 54.9% in 2016.
The major beneficiary is SF. The party now has 27 seats in the new 90 seat Assembly. The largest party is the DUP at 28. Adding the perceived republican/nationalist seats (27, SF; 12, SDLP) gives 39. Adding perceived unionists (DUP, 28; UUP, 10; Traditional Unionist Voice, TUV, 1) also gives 39. Where the Alliance Party (8 seats), the Green Party (2 seats), People Before Profit (1 seat) and Independent (1 seat) will align themselves remains to be seen.
Coalitions within the two local -isms (unionism and nationalism) are unlikely in the near future. They will not be easily forged as conflict and antipathy have been the order of the day since the Assembly, based in Belfast, followed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
An immediate sticking point on the formation of a new Executive to lead the Assembly is agreement on the First and Deputy First Minister. The DUP will seek to nominate for the First Minister and currently assert they will nominate Arlene Foster, who was in place before the election. She is mired in unresolved issues following a scandal involving financial support for a scheme promoting wood-chip boilers. SF have said they will not nominate for Deputy First Minister, if that is the case. No one watching politics in Northern Ireland would be surprised if both assertions were modified.
Post-election talks began last week, under the stewardship of James Brokenshire, an MP from England, who serves as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on behalf of the UK government. His credentials as a neutral broker are challenged, given that he is a member of the Conservative and Unionist Party (Tory), headed by the UK Prime Minister, Teresa May. He is the most powerful person in the room, however, as the Westminster government rules Northern Ireland, where a number of powers such as those over education, health, culture and agriculture, are devolved to the Assembly and Executive in Belfast.
Devolution powers are ring-fenced by money from London, the so-called Block Grant, annually delivered from the UK Treasury. When, and if, an Executive gets up and running, among its first tasks will be to set a budget. This will not be an easy task, as it will have to satisfy the local parties, but, primarily, it will have to serve the interests of the Treasury, inherently conservative, regardless of the government in power, and the Tory Party, hell-bent on austerity economics, in the context of Brexit.
James Brokenshire’s talks are scheduled to last three weeks. If no Assembly and Executive emerges, he can call another election. He is unlikely to do that. A period of direct rule from London is more likely, perhaps a form of partial direct rule, with London minsters taking some powers and pushing through measures that local parties cannot stomach. Versions of this have happened before and this seems the most likely next step. Members of the new Assembly may lose their salaries if no Executive is put in place.
This leads to a scenario where people in the poorest part of the UK, the people most dependent on public sector jobs and benefits, will feel the full force of the austerity gale blowing out of London, as Storm Brexit gathers pace. A snap UK election in May is possible as the Tories take advantage of their success in delivering on the referendum vote to leave the EU and drive the British Labour Party to the outer edges of power.
Ironically, despite the protestations by local parties in the North that they have secured ‘mitigations’ to the Tory Party project of welfare reform, many poorer and vulnerable people will suffer.
Thus while political matters are different, somewhat, they remain fundamentally the same. So it is in the North.
Meanwhile, in the South, historical travesties against mothers and babies by Church and State literally rise from the grave in Galway; the police service implodes on itself, while the Celtic Tiger bubbles up again, with homelessness, particularly in Dublin, a rampant litmus test, as rents and house prices rise. Talk of an economic recovery echoes hollowly in the capital’s financial centres, while people in the rest of the country continue to struggle. And that’s without mentioning water charges.
It’s a tough gig being a politician, North or South. Power is elsewhere – London, Brussels, global corporate HQs – while responsibility and accountability pulse loudly locally. In the Trump Universe we now occupy, with Brexit, in particular as it affects Scotland, the biggest political driver in this part of the west of Europe, cultural and social matters – the Irish language in the North and abortion rights in the South – may light the fuse under the next round of political changes, when things will be even more different, but also still the same.