Northern election: Unionism in Crisis

For the first time in the history of the NI Assembly, Unionists have lost their overall majority following the 2 March snap election.

Socialist Worker

Northern election: Unionism in Crisis

(Picture: Arlene Foster at Omagh Count)

With the reduction of MLA seats from 108 to 90, the DUP’s 28 seat hold is only one ahead of Sinn Fein and it has lost its ability to veto legislation through the Petition of Concern mechanism.

A massive turnout for Sinn Fein has given the party a mandate to challenge the ‘status quo’. This is a dramatic turnaround from May 2016 when the DUP were viewed as the primary winners of Assembly elections.

The DUP and First Minister Arlene Foster’s responsibility for and handling of the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) debacle forced Sinn Fein to collapse the NI Assembly triggering a highly polarised snap election fought along traditional sectarian lines.

Mass anger

Mass anger at Foster’s arrogance and the waste of hundreds of millions of pounds after years of cuts to public services made sure this scandal couldn’t be swept under the carpet as had been the case with Red Sky, Research Services Ireland, NAMA, the Mobuoy dump and others.

To deflect from their own culpability Foster claimed the RHI crisis was a Sinn Fein/IRA plot to weaken Unionism. In fact, Sinn Fein, the DUP’s partners in government for more than a decade, trailed behind public outrage and only acted when disgust began to eat deep into its own support base.

The entirety of the DUP’s election message amounted to sectarian scaremongering: ‘vote for us to stop them’. Traditional Unionist voters who were angered and shocked by the RHI fiasco were bombarded with the message they had to vote DUP to stop the radical Republican agenda of Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein. Intent on whipping up a sectarian frenzy Foster described Irish language speakers as crocodiles. Every utterance of Foster and the DUP mobilised tens of thousands to strike back against their open bigotry, arrogance and corruption. Essentially, Foster became a recruiting agent for Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein transformed itself from an establishment party implementing austerity along with the DUP to a party committed to opposing the ‘status quo’. Sinn Fein made scaremongering over the implementation of a ‘hard border’ a central theme even though the EU, the Irish and British governments and a majority of political parties in the North have all declared their opposition to it.

More and more of Sinn Fein’s supporters have been increasingly critical and frustrated at the party’s implementation of austerity and failure to hold the DUP accountable for scandal after scandal. Sinn Fein have been rewarded for standing up to the DUP but their adoption of anti-establishment politics can only further expose contradictions in their strategy. They will now be expected to follow through on their mandate to challenge the ‘status quo’.

Their loss of seats means the DUP no longer has a majority to block Equal Marriage and progressive legislation in the Assembly.

Sinn Fein surge

Despite Sinn Fein’s surge People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll (pictured near-left) retained his seat in West Belfast. Eamonn McCann (pictured far-left) narrowly missed out on retaining his seat in Foyle even though the campaign increased its first preference votes from 4176 to 4760.

Negotiations have started on creating a new NI government and if that fails direct rule from Westminster could be triggered.

What will happen next is far from certain. Sinn Fein say they will not accept Arlene Foster as First Minister before a public inquiry is held into the RHI fiasco. With a weakened DUP and a mandate to challenge the establishment status quo expectations are running high for action on corruption, bigotry, austerity and equality for women and LGBT rights.

Negotiations will not deliver an end to austerity, the resolution of legacy issues, a women’s right to choose or Equal Marriage. People Before Profit and others will not be waiting to be told what’s possible or when it should happen. The mobilisation of people power will be key in winning genuine equality, abolishing the Bedroom Tax and anti-trade union laws and reversing the running down of public services.

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