Northern Ireland Assembly Election: Interesting Times Ahead

One of the areas of politics that I am most passionate about is the nature of governments. Particularly, I despise the concept of monarchy governments. Monarchy governments transfer power across generations along one family lineage. National leaders inherit their position by right of birth with no consideration of other factors. This has a few problems:

  • Administrative inefficiency. Monarchs appointed by birth may not have the expertise, interest or competence to govern society in the interest of all members of the populations.
  • Greed. Monarchs may not see it as their duty to govern in the interests of all of their subjects. Instead, they may focus on enriching themselves or their cronies.
  • God. Many monarchical systems justify themselves by claiming that the monarch is divinely appointed to rule. Given that there is no evidence to affirm the existence of any supernatural being, these claims are false.

Instead, countries should be republics where the law designates the process by which power is designated. Modern-day republics designate power according to some form of popular approval (e.g. elections), while monarchies are reduced to figurehead roles.

Being an ardent republican, I keep an eye on politics in Northern Ireland. Irish history in the 20th century was marked by conflict over the matter of British rule. Nationalists/Republicans felt that the island should be self-governed, while Loyalists/Unionists supported British rule. Republican sentiments were in part, driven by British colonial mismanagement and that the anti-Catholic values of the British monarchy.

The southern part of Ireland became a fully independent republic in 1949, while the north remained under British rule. In the north, Protestants/Unionists were favoured over the largely Catholic/Nationalist minority. During the second half of the 20th century, Northern Ireland was marred by conflict between Nationalist paramilitary groups and Unionist paramilitary groups, the latter backed by the British government.

The Troubles came to an end in 1998, following the Good Friday Agreement, where a power-sharing government between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein was established. This seems like an amazing feat to get such vicious opponents to come to the table and work together, there are some problems:

Recently, there have been some cracks forming in the NI government. First there was Brexit. The DUP supports Brexit (for some stupid reason), while the UUP, SF and the SLDP support Remain as integral to the peace process. The soft border with the Republic is an economic benefit to the North and it allows Nationalists to pretend that the island is effectively reunified.

Second there is the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). The RHI was a scheme which paid businesses to use renewable heating materials. This scheme was taken advantage of with stories of empty rooms being heated with biomass combustion. The RHI was implemented by First Minister Foster, who refused to accept responsibility for the failure. Deputy First Minister McGuinness resigned in protest. SF did not nominate a replacement, leading to a new assembly election.

That election took place over the weekend and it was interesting. The obstinate DUP were punished by effectively losing 5 seats, while SF gained 4, bringing them pretty much level in terms of seats and first-preference votes (total number of seats went from 108 to 90).

This result means that the DUP can no longer file “petitions of concern” by themselves. This opens a pathway for NI to enter the 21st century with the rest of the UK by passing same-sex marriage. The DUP can rely on the ultra-crazy TUV candidate to join them on any petition against SSM, but they will still be one vote short.

Remember how I said that the DUP were obstinate? Yeah, well it looks like Foster is going to stay on as leader of the DUP. Presumably this means she will stay on as First Minister. This is a headache for SF: do they negotiate a new government with the DUP which the DUP can then claim that McGuinness’ resignation was a political stunt after all? Or do they hold out with the risk that the UK government reintroduces direct rule?

First and Deputy First Minister are effectively co-First Ministers and each requires a majority of support from all members, Unionist members and Nationalist members. If the DUP wants Foster, then Foster will likely stay and this is probably the least worst option for SF. Even if a new government is negotiated, the power-sharing agreement could be in jeopardy again when the Brexit issue starts to really bite.

All in all, this result is good for republicans. SF and the SDLP come out of it stronger and looking more stately, while the DUP appears weakened and childish. There are also other issues at play here: SF is centre-left economically and socially liberal (except for abortion), while the DUP is a right-wing conservative party. I would have thought that SF could have drummed up support for republicanism by association with decent policies in other areas, but it seems that sectarianism in NI runs deep.

The problems facing NI before the election are still there. The distribution of power is still roughly the same. The best practical outcome for NI is for nothing to change. The trouble is that both sides want change in opposite directions. It will be interesting to see if another innovative solution is found to manage Brexit while keeping everyone happy, I sure as hell can’t see one.

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