Overview of NI Assembly Election 201609 May 2016 - by Anna Mercer
After a long campaign and two days of counting, superficially, at least, the Assembly chamber will not look much different than before in terms of party representation. While voter turnout held up (55%), support for the five main parties saw a reduction in percentage terms, with three seats leaving the Nationalist benches.
That said, there will be 29 new faces in the chamber, bringing a new dynamic and new personalities into the mix, including 30 women and more younger representation. The only increase recorded amongst the smaller parties, mainly as a result of the gains in both the Green Party and People Before Profit (PBP).
Unionist representation remained as it was, with both the DUP and UUP returning the same number of seats as they won in 2011, but with different responses to these results from each camp. Both seem to have run very hard to stand still.
The DUP lauded their result as an endorsement of their new leader Arlene Foster and their record in government. A campaign focused around “Arlene’s candidates,” some accused the DUP of “project fear” - with letters sent to voters in key constituencies asking them not to dilute unionism in order to ensure that Martin McGuiness would not become First Minister.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt was honest about his disappointment in not increasing the number of seats on the UUP benches, with his aim of 18 or 19 seats falling short with 16 returned. He did, however, reclaim the seats which three former members had defected from in the last mandate, but did not consolidate representation in the Assembly chamber following good results in the most recent local government and general elections.
While party strategists review whether running too many candidates in some constituencies jeopardised their chances of additional seats, others will be questioning whether the messaging was right. The challenge for the party now will be to balance their traditional brand of unionism with a more socially liberal strain of unionism as articulated by Mike Nesbitt's support for equal marriage and allowing a free vote on issues around reform of abortion legislation.
However the greatest upset was within Nationalism, with the most casualties amongst the SDLP and Sinn Féin benches, with several high profile MLAs losing their seats including former Health Committee Chair Maeve McLaughlin and Phil Flanagan from Sinn Féin, as well as SDLP deputy leader Fearghal McKinney and former deputy, Dolores Kelly.
Sinn Féin saw the greatest drop in percentage terms, with their vote down 2.9% on 2011, and they fell short of securing the 30 seats which would have given them full access to the Petition of Concern mechanism. The party's political heartland in West Belfast saw the arrival of People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll, taking a significant chunk out of the Sinn Féin vote, 8,299 on the first count.
While former Education Minister John O'Dowd is right when he said that PR elections are “not about topping the poll, they are about winning seats,” the question which both Sinn Féin and the SDLP will be asking themselves will be how much of an electoral motivator is the constitutional question, with nationalist voters either not coming out to vote, or giving their vote to non-aligned parties.
The SDLP took the greatest hit in terms of seats, losing two, notably in what once was their stronghold in Foyle where they couldn’t counter the appeal of People Before Profit’s Eamonn McCann, coupled with three Sinn Féin candidates jostling for the SDLP third seat. A party which has declined since 2003, hopes of a resurgence under new leader Colum Eastwood were premature as the party returned only 12 seats on their previous 14.
However, Eastwood was only leader for five months and with a turnaround of 50% in their Assembly team, many of whom are under 40, the SDLP will hope to take full advantage of the change brought about by the election.
With the Alliance Party returning the same number of seats, all in the same constituencies as before, this result can only fail to inspire. They failed to reach the magic number of 11 – the number of seats needed for a seat at the Executive table and their only hope of a ministry now is through the Department of Justice.
The most interesting result is undoubtedly the rise of the smaller parties, with the Green Party doubling their representation to two seats, matched by the arrival of People Before Profit. Although a small change in the overall makeup of the Assembly, the rise in appeal of parties who do not define themselves around the constitutional question, and which occupy more liberal positions on issues such as equal marriage and abortion, is worth noting.
Independent Claire Sugden who will be pleased to have been returned in the face of competition from the UUP who fought to recover what once was their seat before former party stalwart David McClarty ran as an Independent, showing that the seat owed more to the personality of the custodian than to party loyalty.
Last but not least, the failure of the TUV to increase representation beyond Jim Allister has raised questions as to whether there is any appeal for the party beyond himself alone, which will no doubt be a relief to the DUP.
So as the new MLAs get ready to take their seats, the most interesting question remains as to who will govern; will the UUP and SDLP walk away from the Executive and into Opposition, gifted to them through John McCallister’s Opposition Act, and who lost his seat so will not join them on the benches.
This must be a serious consideration for them, as many commentators now argue that they failed to secure the electoral endorsement for their participation in any future Executive. With two weeks of Programme for Government negotiations set to commence this week, will the UUP, SDLP and Alliance be part of the negotiations, partners around the table or will they be challenging from a newly-formed opposition.