Despite the loss that pro-British Unionists experienced in the March 2 elections, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will remain the biggest political party in Northern Ireland. According to the results published by the Northern Ireland Elections Office, the DUP has received 28.1 percent of the votes and 28 seats, remaining the largest party in the assembly but losing its veto power. Overall, the unionist parties have suffered a major loss, losing their majority in the assembly for the first time since 1921, with only 40 seats out of 90.
Sinn Féin emerged as the great winner of the election, increasing their share of the vote by 4 points to 27.9 percent and 27 seats, only one seat behind the DUP. Formerly associated with the Irish Republican Army, an armed group that fought for reunification, Sinn Féin now advocates for reunification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland through peaceful means. In recent years, the party has emerged as the largest nationalist force in the region.
It is unlikely, however, that these results will have a major effect on local politics. Under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a complex system of power-sharing exists in which the two biggest parties are legally mandated to share the offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister while other parties are entitled to get ministerial offices. Failure to comply would result in direct rule by London. The system ensures stability in the highly sectarian politics of Northern Ireland, where Nationalists are mostly Catholics who identify as Irish, and Unionists are Protestants who identify as British. The system results in a continuous coalition between Unionists and Nationalists as the only viable option.
Yet, the elections draw particular attention because they were the first since the Brexit referendum of June 2016 in which Northern Ireland voted to remain in the Union, 56 to 44. Many fear that leaving the EU will mean the return of a “hard” border between the UK and Ireland, with terrible social and economic conditions for Northern Ireland’s population.
Nationalist parties have opposed Brexit and used its results as a new argument for a reunification with the Republic of Ireland. On March 12, Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neil called Brexit a “disaster” and asked for “a referendum on Irish unity to happen as soon a possible.” But British Prime Minister Theresa May refused such an option and stated that it “was not right to have a border poll at this stage,” said The Independent..
Nationalist parties’ recent gains don’t necessarily equate renewed support for reunification, warns Matthew Whitting, a Coventry University Researcher writing for the London School of Economics website.”The Assembly election was more about bedding-down better functioning Northern Irish institutions than moving closer to all-Ireland ones,” reports Whitting.
Indeed, with only 22 percent in favor of reunification according to a September 2016 Ipsos Mori poll cited by the Irish Times, reunification still seems an unlikely outcome in the short term.