Northern Irish Elections: All you need to know about the race for Stormont

The DUP and Sinn Féin will retain power but younger voters may push progressive reforms


How the Election Works

There are 108 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) are elected using the Single Transferrable Vote System, a proportional method allowing voters to rank all candidates on the ballot paper.

The Northern Irish elections are unique in that no party can gain complete control of the government. The Good Friday Agreement requires that both nationalist and unionist parties be represented in the power-sharing executive.

In the previous Assembly, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had 38 MLAS, Sinn Féin 29, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) 13, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) 14, and the Alliance Party eight. Smaller parties and independents collectively held six seats.

The incumbent first minister is the DUP’s Arlene Foster, while Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin is deputy first minister.

Setting the Scene

This is the fifth election election for the Northern Irish Assembly to take place since the institution was established by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

The assembly elected in 2011 is the first that has served an entire term. Previous assemblies were suspended — sometimes for prolonged periods — and power returned to the Northern Ireland Office.

In the assembly elected in 1998, the moderate unionist UUP and moderate nationalist SDLP were the largest parties. In subsequent elections, however, they been replaced by their more hardline counterparts, the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The same two parties will retain their power in this election, though Sinn Féin may make gains – and Foster seems concerned that she could be deposed as first minister.

Sinn Féin’s party leader, Gerry Adams, has also loomed over the race. Adams, who holds a seat in the parliament of the Republic of Ireland, has been heavily criticised in recent days for his use of the ‘n’ word in a tweet comparing Northern Irish nationalists to African Americans.

Finally, some people born in 1998 have now turned 18 meaning that, for the first time, voters who did not experience the Troubles are part of the electorate. Many hope that this generation will be able to forge a new political culture.

Key issues

Economy: Northern Ireland’s economy is weaker and growth slower than the rest of the UK. Job creation has been at the heart of the campaigns, and the parties broadly agree that corporate tax rates should be reduced to 12.5 per cent, in line with the Republic of Ireland.

Additionally, on both sides of the Irish border, Sinn Féin has been selling itself as a leftist alternative with a tough anti-austerity agenda.

Abortion and same-sex marriage: While these issues scarcely are scarcely discussed in the rest of the UK, they are hotly disputed across Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin supports same-sex marriage and it has won majority support in the assembly, but the DUP has used its power of veto to block legislation.   

Even more controversial is abortion, which remains a criminal offence in Northern Ireland. Earlier this year, a woman was convicted and received a suspended sentence for taking abortion pills she ordered online. Both pro-life and pro-choice activists have called on their supporters to boycott candidates over their stance on abortion.

Peace: The 30-year conflict known as the Troubles still cast a shadow of the assembly. Most people still vote according to their community identity.

The executive came perilously close to collapse last year when a series of murders raised suspicions that the Provisional IRA was still active, and potentially connected to Sinn Féin.

McGuinness denied all claims, insisting that ‘the IRA has left the stage’. The situation was resolved through talks, but then-First Minister Peter Robinson stepped down shortly afterwards, in January 2016.

EU: Support for the EU is stronger in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK, with all parties but the DUP supporting Remain. Brexit would raise complex issues related to human rights, EU funding for peace initiatives and the status of the border with the Republic of Ireland.

What to expect:

DUP to remain largest party, though Sinn Féin will increase its number of seats. UUP to retain its 13 seats while the SDLP suffer a slight slide. Watch out for candidates from the new player on the left, People Before Profit.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is the editor of Left Foot Forward

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.