It has been billed as the most important election in the centuries-old existence of that tense political entity known as Northern Ireland.
On this day next week, the North’s 1.3 million registered voters will have the opportunity to vote from 239 candidates and select 90 of them, spread across 18 constituencies, for the Stormont power-sharing convention.
It has been an extraordinarily low-key campaign so far, with suspicions that all the main players are trying to avoid too many sizzling encounters.
Quiet, sense fine‘s Michelle O’Neill argues that Brexit has made many voters reconsider their relationship with England, Scotland and Wales. Meanwhile DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson warns that the future of the North’s existence as a political entity embedded in the UK is at stake.
The general consensus is that three key trends could emerge from this vote next Thursday, May 5th. Two of these could bring about changes not only in the north, but across the island.
Here are the scenarios summarized:
1) Sinn Féin could emerge as the largest party
This is indicated by many opinion polls. It would give a nationalist party potential political leadership in the North for the first time in its 101-year existence with Michelle O’Neill as presumptive First Minister. That doesn’t come naturally — but when it does, it raises questions about the shaky power-sharing arrangements that have been in stop-start mode for the past 15 years.
Jeffrey Donaldson’s DUP would be under immense pressure to reject the resumption of power-sharing deals if faced with arguments that a Border poll was looming. The title of Deputy First Minister is just that – because both posts are equivalent and power-sharing gives neither party more real power than the other.
But history has taught us enough about the power of symbols – and flags and emblems have claimed lives during the terrible years.
Northern Ireland’s business leaders have warned that power-sharing structures must be restored if jobs and prosperity are to remain. The companies also want a negotiated end to the standoff over the North’s special offer EU Commercial status, which will be difficult to achieve without Stormont’s work.
2) A growing middle ground could win the race
Polls suggest the middle-class Alliance Party – which has long advocated a community-wide approach to solving vital bread-and-butter issues – may finally be gaining ground with a new generation.
Alliance did well in the last election. Its leader, Naomi Long, offers sound arguments for abandoning the North’s old static “them-versus-us” policy. If Alliance lives up to its potential, it could find common ground with smaller groups like the Greens and maybe even left-wing groups like People Before Profit.
There may even be a potential link with the moderate nationalist SDLP, which has not been credited for initiating and building peace in Northern Ireland in 1998. The SDLP has advocated for cost of living, health, housing and education.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has argued that the North’s EU special trade status and who will be First Minister are not issues that pop up on the doorstep when SDLP candidates go campaigning.
However, if a middle ground emerges, current power-sharing arrangements may need to be revised to give these parties more say. This outcome may bode better for a revival of power-sharing and a compromise on the EU’s core. It would be good news for both Northern and Southern Ireland.
3) But this is the North, so don’t rule out the status quo
This is the bleakest option – but unfortunately not ruled out. The history of the north tells us that at election time many people become silent tribesmen and vote against the others.
There is an argument that we never had power sharing but had two governments, SF and DUP, in one executive. The deal suited both parties, guaranteeing each a piece of power indefinitely.
This is now the seventh election since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. In 2016, the assembly collapsed in less than a year when Sinn Féin withdrew. An election in 2017 produced no executive for three years, which in turn lasted 12 months.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/northern-ireland-voters-can-drive-huge-political-change-or-dreary-steeples-can-let-the-status-quo-drag-on-41594685.html Northern Ireland voters can push big political changes – or dreary towers can prolong the status quo