Arlene Foster is under pressure following the 'Cash for Ash' scandal
Northern Irish voters go to the polls today, for the second national Assembly elections in ten months.
The vote was triggered when Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Féin deputy first minister, resigned over first minister Arlene Foster’s involvement in the ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal. As enterprise minister, she initiated — and dramatically bungled — a renewable heating scheme, leading to huge over-spending.
The incident has significantly affected Foster’s popularity, but is unlikely to massively change her party’s vote share Although polling in Northern Ireland is notoriously difficult, it’s been predicted that the DUP will remain the largest party, albeit with a narrower lead over Sinn Féin.
However, due to widespread frustration with the impasse between the two biggest parties, they will both be prepared for losing votes to their more moderate counterparts: the nationalist SDLP, unionist UUP and the cross-community Alliance Party.
Nor will the drama end anytime soon. Once the count is completed — which may take several days since Northern Ireland uses the complex STV voting system — the largest parties will have to enter negotiations to form a power-sharing executive.
This must include both a nationalist and a unionist party and, in the past, has always comprised of Sinn Féin and the DUP. However, in the likely event that the erstwhile partners struggle to agree on an executive of ministers, a different arrangement may be required.
The SDLP and UUP have warned that they may try to form an alternative, more moderate power-sharing executive, although they’re unlikely to have the numbers to pull it off. James Brokenshire, the Northern Irish secretary, may threaten direct rule from London — an outcome Sinn Féin, in particular, will be desperate to avoid.
Or, if no agreement has been reached after three weeks, it’s possible that another election could be declared.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of Brexit, which is likely to affect Northern Ireland more severely than any other part of the UK, both economically and socially.
The people of Northern Ireland, the majority of whom voted to remain, clearly need a strong, stable government to represent their interests during the Brexit negotiations.
But whatever today’s outcome, they don’t seem likely to get one.
Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter
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