Plus, ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Another NI Assembly election is almost here in a world fundamentally changed since we last went to the polls. We’re facing potential food shortages for the third time in just over two years, first with Brexit, then with the Covid and now with the war in Ukraine. This seems scarcely believable to most of us born into the era of post-war abundance.
Yet, in many ways it also feels like we are waking up from a five year dream to find everything exactly as we left it. As Northern Ireland enters this election campaign, just like the last one, we are without a functioning Executive. Last time it was the disastrous Renewable Heat Incentive scheme that led to the collapse. This time it’s Brexit and the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol. What both issues have in common is the DUP’s almost comedic mishandling.
Two leadership changes later and another Assembly election is now upon us with DUP bracing itself for what might come. In an unusual outbreak of consensus, almost all commentators agree that this is the election in which the DUP will likely lose its position as largest party. Thanks to changes insisted upon by the party itself, unionism could lose the position of First Minister for the first time since the Assembly was created in 1998.
The irony is that this is partly self-inflicted. The DUP’s insistence on changes at St Andrews, designed to protect itself as largest party at the expense of other unionist parties, has spectacularly backfired. Under the Agreement, the First and deputy First Minister were elected by a cross community vote. Since St Andrew’s, the two largest parties from the largest designation nominate their candidates.
The DUP has lauded itself with the title of First Minister for years. Sinn Féin has repeatedly pointed out that it is joint first office and this is true. The First Minister can’t so much as send out a letter without the agreement of the Deputy First Minister. None this matters as the DUP bangs the drum of fear and increasingly, desperately, tries to rally the unionist vote.
The DUP must be bracing itself for a difficult campaign with challenges emerging across several fronts. The three years without an Assembly and the challenges this caused are still fresh in the minds of voters. Ironically, put there by the DUP itself. The irony of the DUP collapsing the Assembly when it criticised Sinn Féin most vociferously for doing the same is not lost on voters.
For Sinn Féin, it views this election as the most important in its recent history. Over the next few years, the party could have a First Minister in Northern Ireland and a Taoiseach in Dublin. The public still haven’t forgiven the party for collapsing the institutions a few years ago, but they will blame the DUP for this latest stunt. The prospect of a nationalist largest party and consequent First Minister will rally Sinn Féin’s base and motivate voters across Northern Ireland.
The issue that created this latest collapse, the ‘Protocol’ is, according to recent opinion polls, not a priority for most unionist voters. The Protocol is a complicated issue that is difficult to simplify. Most people don’t understand the consequences of this island being the frontier between the UK and EU. Thanks to grace periods, the negative aspects of the Protocol are not yet being felt on the ground. However, the Protocol also offers an opportunity for Northern Ireland as the only place in the world where firms can trade both in the EU and outside of it. For the DUP to focus its campaign on this issue is a risky election strategy.
Many expected Jeffrey Donaldson’s appointment as leader to signal the change to a softer DUP one more aligned with its electorate. Despite being a party whose views reflect an evangelical Christian ethos, the party has managed consistently to secure votes far beyond its natural support base. However, over time society has shifted and the young voters that the DUP now needs to attract to maintain its position are alienated by its illiberal views. Now that the major ‘progressive’ issues around equal marriage, reproductive rights and the Irish language are close to being resolved, the DUP has an opportunity to let these slip into the background. However, new problems have emerged on which Jeffrey Donaldson will have to focus his mind: a revived UUP.
In the same way that the EU referendum came about because David Cameron tried to rid himself of the threat of UKIP, the DUP now finds its own feet held to the fire by harder line unionists and Brexiteers. The emergence of a refreshed Ulster Unionist Party cast in the more moderate image of its new leader Doug Beattie, is offering voters a pro-union alternative that wants to make Northern Ireland work economically and is also socially progressive. Caught between these two diametrically opposed visions of unionism sits the DUP.
Gambling this election on the Protocol may be the biggest risk of the DUP’s political life. The world is emerging weakened from the pandemic, Europe is staring war in the face, people are unable to heat their homes or put fuel in their cars, mortgage interest rates are rising and an increase in food prices is all but guaranteed. For the DUP, in a bind entirely of its own making, to focus demand on unrealistic changes to the Protocol may, for the first time, become a step too far for voters.
So, what would it mean if the DUP fails to return as the largest party and Sinn Féin takes that position? Psychologically there will undoubtedly be an impact for unionism to lose its largest party dominance but, practically, nothing will change. The Executive office is a joint office in which the distinction between the two ministers is in name only. Of more interest is what will happen to the other parties, particularly Alliance and Ulster Unionists. If they can each secure more seats the next Executive could be one which focuses on resolving real issues. Of course, before that can happen there is the small hurdle to get over of actually forming an Executive. Everything changes but everything stays the same.
If, following the election the DUP refuses to nominate a First or Deputy First Minister, then another period without an Assembly will follow. Undoubtedly this will lead to talks and inevitably to further changes to the Good Friday Agreement. Whether these changes will benefit the people of Northern Ireland or the political parties in Stormont remains to be seen.