No one expected the leading Unionist party to lose 10 seats in the recent Assembly election in Northern Ireland. No one expected that as a result of the voting, the Democratic Unionists would have only a one-seat advantage over the Sinn Fein. No one expected the overall Nationalist vote to almost tie the Unionist vote. No one expected that 100,000 more votes would be cast than in the last Assembly election – a ten percent increase with nearly 60 percent of the increase going to Sinn Fein.
It was a momentous election, a clear victory for Sinn Fein, and Nationalists and Republicans were delighted. The Democratic Unionists and most everyone else were shocked.
Was Northern Ireland showing signs of agreeing to a United Ireland by voting in such a way for Sinn Fein? How will new, inexperienced political leadership be able to deal with the Brexit problems that seem to be getting worse by the day? Will Brexit motivate people to be more inclined to stay with the European Union by uniting with the Republic of Ireland? Several Northern Ireland businesses have already moved to the South.
The situation is confusing. Was the vote a reaction to DUP leader Arlene Foster’s mean spirited attitude, the resignation of Martin McGuinness, or, simply, a result of the fact that the Catholic population is growing?
The newly elected Assembly now must organize itself and appoint new leadership to manage its internal business. The rules in the Good Friday agreement require the newly organized government to be in place within three weeks of the election. If that does not happen, there must be another new election, or control goes back to London. As always, personalities and power struggles will have an impact on all decisions. Foster, the former DUP leader in the Assembly, is being challenged by Sinn Fein members, who are insisting they will not accept her. During her recent time in office as First Minister, she regularly insulted Sinn Fein, causing the late Martin McGuinness to resign in protest.
Given that, she may be the best vote getter Sinn Fein has. She plays to her highly prejudiced base by calling Sinn Fein a bunch of crocodiles who, if you feed them, will only want more. She cut the budget for Irish language schools while authorizing funds for musical instruments for Protestant bands. That kind of rhetoric and her governing decisions annoyed many on both sides. During the election Sinn Fein had men and women dressed up as crocodiles roaming all over the election sites.
The full impact of Martin McGuinness’s death will not become clear for some time. But he was a steady hand who was highly respected by most all the players. His reputation as a tough guy and an excellent negotiator combined with his friendship with ultra-unionist Ian Paisley evoked admiration from everyone who met him. His friendly manner and quick smile softened Sinn Fein’s image and made people forget the tough guy stories. It all came to him naturally.
That softening of Sinn Fein’s image has been a goal since the ceasefire and the giving up of its arms depots. It is not by accident that 40 percent of its representatives in the Assembly are women, a number far more than any other party. There is no doubt that this has had an impact on Sinn Fein’s success at the ballot box both in the North and the South.
McGuinness’s replacement as head of Sinn Fein in the North is Michelle O’Neill, a brilliant young woman from the Mid Ulster constituency who has been in politics since 2005. Married with two children, she was mayor of Dungannon for a time, and minister of Agriculture and Rural Development in the last government.
This latest Assembly election is hopefully another step toward peace and equality for everyone in Northern Ireland. If Catholics become the majority, all of us might remember that it will then be their responsibility to insure that the minority is treated as Catholics wished to be treated themselves.
For the moment, though, the biggest problem is the coming separation between the EU and Britain. This will greatly stress Northern Ireland in ways that are hard to predict. Prime Minister Theresa May’s first obligation is to protect her country and the issues in Northern Ireland are in second place. The same is true of Ireland itself.
Northern Ireland’s leaders must work hard and work smart to protect their own people as things comes to a head in London.