A splintering of Northern Ireland’s unionist parties “almost certainly” opens the door for Republican Sinn Féin to appoint the region’s first minister next year, according to politicians and analysts who predict such a development could collapse Stormont’s fragile power-sharing institutions.
The dramatic ousting of Arlene Foster in favour of hardliner Edwin Poots at the larger Democratic Unionist party and the gentler elevation of progressive Doug Beattie to lead the Ulster Unionist party has set the scene for a fresh fracturing of the unionist vote when Northern Ireland goes to the polls in regional assembly elections in May 2022.
Following the last elections in 2017, the DUP has 28 seats — one more than Sinn Féin. Recent polls suggest that Sinn Féin, which is pushing for a border poll to make its foundational dream of a united Ireland a reality, would win more seats if an election was held now.
Were the nationalist party to become the biggest party at Stormont it would mark a historic moment in the way power is shared between unionist and republican parties in the region under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
Unionists fear loss of first minister
Under the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006, the first minister is nominated by the largest party within the largest political designation and the deputy by the largest party within the second-largest political designation.
Although the deputy role is legally equivalent to that of the first minister, the top job has assumed outsized importance having being held by unionists in each parliament since power-sharing institutions were created two decades ago.
“In symbolic terms it would be a massive blow to unionism for republicans to take the first minister [office],” said Jonathan Tonge, professor of politics at Liverpool university and a long time Northern Ireland watcher. “That really is the abyss into which the DUP is staring.”
Poots’s election on May 14 has led to a major shift in Northern Ireland’s politics as he plays to voters angry at the Northern Ireland protocol — part of the UK’s Brexit treaty with the EU that seeks to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland by introducing some checks on goods being transported from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
James Hughes, professor of comparative politics at London School of Economics, said Poots will be “appealing to the narrowest of bases in unionism, religious conservatives . . . and hardline loyalists who are opposing the protocol”.
Meanwhile, Beattie’s is a much broader tent, offering a port in a storm to unionists with progressive views on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, and a more harmonious party than the DUP, where Poots is facing an open revolt from some senior party figures over the brutal circumstances of Foster’s ousting.
“There will be a drop in the DUP vote almost certainly, there’ll probably be an increase in the UUP vote,” said Tonge. “The net effect is to remove any chance the DUP has of being the largest party at the next assembly election.”
At the same time Sinn Féin’s vote seems to be holding up, said Stephen Farry, deputy leader of the centrist Alliance party.
“It seems inconceivable that any unionist party is going to be bigger than Sinn Féin [in the next election],” Farry said, adding that the changes under way were a “huge pivot moment” for Northern Ireland politics as Brexit raises existential questions for the region.
How instability threatens Stormont
But for some hardline unionists the prospect of a Republican leading the Stormont assembly will be a step too far. Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice and the party’s only MLA (member of the legislative assembly), said: “If you had more unionist MLAs than nationalist and a nationalist first minister was put upon them, that can’t be tolerable or acceptable.
“I’ve been very clear that if that were to happen, no unionist should accept any ministerial office until that wrong is righted,” he said, adding that he would “bring down this system of Stormont” in protest.
Beattie said, however, that the UUP would take its positions in a government if the elections resulted in a Sinn Féin first minister because “that’s what democrats do, whether the DUP would do similar, I don’t know”.
“If they [Sinn Féin] are the biggest party . . . they would be entitled to the first minister,” he said, adding that people would have to “get over” symbolic issues in the interests of the country.
For the DUP bringing down Stormont would be a risky strategy. The three years after Stormont’s 2017 collapse, when Northern Ireland was run by Westminster, are largely remembered as a time when progress stalled across government. The DUP declined to put forward a representative for interview for this article.
Brexit’s legacy dominates agenda
In his speech on being appointed leader, Poots said the DUP faced “the greatest Titanic struggle of an election” but that by the time the election came the party would be “so far ahead we’ll show our competitors a clean pair of heels”. He vowed to begin his election campaign immediately on a platform of uniting unionism to leverage its collective might towards ridding Northern Ireland of the protocol.
The UK and EU are deadlocked on the question of the protocol with Boris Johnson’s Conservative government demanding more flexibility on its implementation while Brussels continues to insist that London must accept the reality of the deal it signed up to.
The two sides are due to hold crunch talks at a meeting of the joint committee overseeing the protocol this week.
But even if both sides can edge towards some kind of resolution in the coming weeks, Brexit and its lasting impact on Northern Ireland is once again dominating the political agenda in the region.
Deirdre Heenan, professor of social policy at Ulster University, said the “key issue” for unionist voters isn’t how socially conservative parties are, it is “what is their [party’s] vision for the future of the union and what are they going to do with the Northern Ireland protocol”.