Northern Ireland prepares for its second election in less than twelve months on March 2nd following the collapse of the DUP and Sinn Féin power-sharing government.
The election was called a week after Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister in response to the growing controversy surrounding the role of DUP leader Arlene Foster in the ‘Cash for Ash’ scheme.
Who is likely to come out of the election holding the reins of power? Conventional wisdom says a return to Stormont for the ruling parties, but if 2016 taught us anything, it is that conventional wisdom is frequently inaccurate.
There were 108 seats in the Northern Assembly to fight for in the last election. The DUP won 38 seats and Sinn Féin 28, giving their government a comfortable majority.
The Northern Assembly has been reduced to just 90 seats in the upcoming election. Each constituency will now elect five candidates rather than six.
The lower number in seats is likely to more greatly affect the larger parties’ ability to win so-called ‘bonus’ seats. This, combined with general voter dissatisfaction, could produce a shock result.
The question of Brexit may prove troublesome for the DUP. Not only were they the only major party to support leaving the EU, they campaigned to the point of buying advertisements in newspapers that did not sell copies in Northern Ireland.
A strong majority of 56% of Northern Irish voters chose to remain in the EU. The recent announcement that the UK will not seek to remain in the single market is compounding negative feeling towards the prospect of severing ties with Europe.
It is entirely possible that Brexit may end up undermining the DUP’s chances of returning to power. Sinn Féin supported a Remain vote, as did the main opposition parties of UUP, SDLP and Alliance.
The DUP losing its grip on the reins of power at a time when a second referendum on Scottish Independence looks likely is a worrying thought for unionists. Should Sinn Féin and SDLP emerge as strong powers following the election, a referendum on Northern Ireland joining the Republic may be on the cards.
However, should the election follow recent trends and once again ensure the DUP and Sinn Féin are the two most powerful parties in the land, there is no guarantee the two parties will choose to work with each other again.
In this case, the three opposition parties could find themselves in government. The DUP may seek a unionist alliance with UUP, while Sinn Féin may desire a similar republican alliance with SDLP. Alternatively, if public opinion turns firmly against the established powers, a new government comprised of UUP, SDLP and Alliance is not unfathomable. There would, however, need to be a large jump in the 31% of the vote they collectively won in the last election.
The only certainty is that an indecisive election will not spark a return to direct British rule, according to Northern Secretary James Brokenshire. Whatever the result may be after polls close on March 2nd, the future of Northern Ireland will still be primarily in its own hands.