Has Northern Ireland changed utterly?

Have the recent Assembly elections changed everything north of the border, asks Brendan O’Donohue.

As the counting in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections neared an end, worried looking figures – sporting rosettes of blue, red and white on their lapels – were pacing up and down counting centres across the 18 constituencies.

As the sun continued to set over the ancient province of Ulster, these figures’ faces that had been etched with worry were slowly coming to the realisation of the scale of their party’s defeat. They were slowly coming to the realisation that their – and many of their colleagues’ – days were numbered at Stormont.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) would lose far more of its share in Stormont than had been previously anticipated. When the final tally of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, the second in less than a year, was announced, the DUP would return 28 MLAs to Stormont, while Sinn Féin would return only one fewer: 27.

This would be a hollow victory for a party that had a 10-seat majority coming into 2017. First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster, addressing supporters in her constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, looked shell-shocked. Her speech was defiant but Ms Foster looked forlorn.

The DUP had been expected to lose a share of the vote, following the “cash for ash” scandal. However, most commentators had the DUP on somewhere between 30 and 32 seats. Few anticipated them to dip below 30, let alone finish on 28. Less than a year since the last Assembly elections, the DUP lost 1.1 per cent of their voting share but Sinn Féin gained 4.4 per cent.

“No, I’ve always said that I can’t go into the office of Deputy First Minister with Arlene Foster while the shadows are hanging over her”

The remaining seats were divided among the SDLP (12), the Ulster Unionists (10), the Alliance (8) and others (5).

The DUP may be the largest party by a single seat – despite Sinn Fein’s increase in votes – but the same margin of a single seat is reversed when it comes to nationalism (39) and unionism (38). These narrowest of majorities will no doubt give Sinn Féin a further boost.

Speaking to RTÉ after the result was announced, a confident Michelle O’Neill – heir to former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness – refused to entertain any talk, however, of her deputising to Arlene Foster. “No, I’ve always said that I can’t go into the office of Deputy First Minister with Arlene Foster while the shadows are hanging over her.”

Indeed, the shadows are still hanging over Arlene Foster. Many questions remain to be answered over her involvement in the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

The scheme, which had been set up by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in 2012 – with Ms Foster then at the helm – encouraged, with uncapped subsidies, businesses to switch from oil and gas to wood-pellet boilers. The flawed scheme could see the Northern Irish taxpayer landed with a £400 million (€460 million) bill.

There were repeated calls from both nationalists and unionists for the First Minister to temporarily step aside while an investigation into the “cash for ash” scandal, as it became known, was carried out. Ms Foster need not have felt that her long-term future as First Minister was under threat by these calls.

There had been similar calls for her predecessor, Peter Robinson, to step aside temporarily when it was revealed that his wife, Iris, had taken out £50,000 in loans to finance her lover’s restaurant. Mr Robinson stepped down from his role while an investigation took place, only then to return to work three weeks later.

Precedent, therefore, had shown that moving aside is by no means a stepping-stone to the political wilderness. Ms Foster, however, has steadfastly refused to vacate her position. It seems that this lady is also “not for turning”.

So far, it has not affected her position as head of her party. Jeffrey Donaldson, MP for Lagan Valley, summed up the mood within the DUP after the election by stating that the focus should be “on Arlene and the party getting a government up and running again at Stormont”.

Talks on forming a government began and those involved had three weeks to come to an agreement before direct rule from Westminster would be reintroduced. That time has elapsed, the talking goes on and direct rule has not been reintroduced.

Sinn Féin, it seems, are open to re-entering power-sharing with the DUP but have offered no suitable alternative to Ms Foster. Ms O’Neill stated at the beginning of the talks: “That’s for the DUP to decide who they put forward in that office. So, we’ll see how the votes are counted and we’ll work our way through all these things in the coming weeks. But Sinn Féin are up for leadership. Sinn Féin are up for equality.”

The election no doubt threw up once again the question of a united Ireland. Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said at the time that uniting both jurisdictions on the island had “never been off our agenda”. However, it would be unwise to confuse this upswing in Sinn Féin’s popularity with a demand to leave the United Kingdom. After all, the electorate in the North have heard enough talk of “leaving” these past 12 months and do not intend on being hauled out of another union just yet.

While latest polls suggest some 65 per cent of residents in the 26 counties would favour a United Ireland, only 30 per cent of residents in the six counties feel the same way. This was not an election fought over the issue of unity but rather on issues that directly affect the electorate: immediate concerns such as Brexit and same-sex marriage. Sinn Féin’s message of “equality, respect, integrity” hit a nerve with the electorate that is seeking to move past its old sectarian ways.

By the end of last year, WB Yeats’s Easter 1916 was being quoted ad nauseam. Does the last stanza sum up the current political landscape in Northern Ireland?

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Indeed, more green is now worn – even in the shape of crocodile costumes – but the red, white and blue of unionism and the green of nationalism will still have to get together to ensure that Northern Ireland governs itself.

Perhaps it is too much of a stretch to say that a beauty (terrible or otherwise) was born as a result of the Assembly elections but 2017 could be the year when Northern Ireland changed, changed utterly.

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