For want of a better term, I’m describing the election as one of ‘moments’ — three in particular.
t’s not the first time a nationalist party has topped the poll in an Assembly election (that happened in June 1998, when the SDLP out-polled the UUP by almost 6,000 votes), but it is the first time a non-unionist could be First Minister in a Northern Ireland parliament or Assembly.
And that has come as an almighty wake-up call to some unionists.
Or, as one DUP Star Wars fan told me on Saturday afternoon: “I feel a great disturbance in the force…”
Another moment — which could be of particular significance in future elections — is the long-time-a-coming breakthrough for those who designate themselves as ‘other’.
In 2017 they accounted for 11 of the 90 MLAs (eight Alliance, two Greens and one People Before Profit). Their numbers have now risen to 18 — 17 of whom are Alliance.
The reason I think it’s meaningful is that increasing numbers of people, who want to see politics and government done differently in Northern Ireland, have concluded that a vote for Alliance is not a wasted vote.
That will have a knock-on impact in council and general elections, particularly in constituencies like North Down, East Belfast, Strangford, South Belfast and Lagan Valley, in addition, crucially, as in areas in the west of the province.
The more Alliance grows, the more the public pressure to change the formation of the Executive and appointment of a First Minister will grow.
And while it’s worth pointing out that its percentage on Thursday was nevertheless a modest 13.5%, an additional 44,000 votes, allied to bright vote management, delivered an additional seven MLAs.
It was a difficult day for unionism. On Ulster Day, last September, the leaders of the DUP, UUP, TUV and PUP committed themselves to working together to oppose the Protocol.
A series of rallies in the run-up to the election was intended to maximise the overall unionist vote and MLA numbers at a time when “unionists are facing the greatest threat to our existence in over a century”.
So, there’ll be disappointment in the results. The overall unionist seat numbers have fallen from 40 to 37; the DUP is no longer the largest party (although comfortably the largest unionist party); Sinn Fein has dibs on the First Minister role; and the overall unionist vote and percentage proportion is more or less what it was in 2017 (on a similar turnout).
Jim Allister’s TUV performed extraordinarily well (up from around 20,000 to 66,000), but the bulk seems to have come from the DUP instead of from that section of unionism which hasn’t turned out for years.
I can understand why Doug Beattie and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who both have reasons to breathe a sigh of relief, will be keen to ‘big up’ their party results. However, both are now faced with difficult questions, not least of which are, why their strategies failed to maximise votes and seats, and why so many unionists seem prepared to sustain Alliance (one of whose strategists told me of their gratitude for the continued criticism they take from unionism!)
There is already talk of circling the wagons and creating some sort of ‘super unionist Assembly group’ which would have more seats than Sinn Fein.
But already if they were successful (which I don’t think they would be) the move would smack of industrial-extent desperation and anyway, Sinn Fein would refuse to play ball in terms of nominating a Deputy First Minister.
That said, some unionists also seem to think that another election in six months would help them. Hmm.
Sinn Fein’s top-dog position is no particular surprise: opinion surveys have been hinting at it since January 2021. Its ultimate day may not have come, but it is a very meaningful day in the history of republicanism in Northern Ireland and I’m quite sure the ballads are being written already as I’m typing this.
The fact that it came back with the same number of seats and missed out on a associate of targeted seats is neither here nor there. Nothing in elections matters more than perception.
It was a horrible day for the SDLP. Colum Eastwood may have performed very well during both leadership debates and daily interviews, but it clearly didn’t amount to a hill of beans with some of his chief or possible vote.
I think that’s because he failed to recognise the real impact on nationalists of the refusal by unionist leaders to commit to serving as Deputy First Minister if Sinn Fein won.
Ironically, the greatest threat to smaller parties, like the Greens, who hoped to build on the progress made in the last associate of elections, is Alliance, whose juggernaut has now colonised the centre ground.
And that’s another one of the moments: there are now three clear blocs — unionist, nationalist and Alliance.
In one sense everything has changed — except the actual dynamics. The representatives of the two traditional orange and green blocs nevertheless explain over 75% of MLAs, and the DUP and Sinn Fein will nevertheless have to reach their own bespoke arrangement before a new Executive is appointed.
But the growth of Alliance and the failure of unionism to make its own post-2017 breakthrough (placing Donaldson in a very difficult position), will make the reaching of any arrangement already more complicated than usual.
To paraphrase the magnificent Bette Davies from All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Mind you, whether they can already agree to start the car is another matter thoroughly.
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