The next election to the Northern Ireland Assembly, due on or before 5 May 2022, could be one of the most consequential to be held so far. There have only been six such contests in total since 1998, with the party system largely frozen at the devolved level for much of the period. If we are entering a new political climate at Stormont, the upcoming election won’t just be a test for the political parties competing; it could be a test for the institutions themselves.

As we enter the election campaign, the latest polls suggest that Sinn Féin is out in front (see Table 1). If its support holds and it emerges as the party with the most first preference votes, it won’t be the first nationalist party to do so. The SDLP narrowly led the popular vote in the first election to the Assembly in 1998, only for the Ulster Unionist Party to secure more seats. If Sinn Féin emerges as the party with the most votes and seats this time around, under the rules in place since the St Andrews Agreement, it would be entitled to nominate for the position of First Minister – which would be a first for a nationalist party.

Such a development would, of course, be primarily symbolic than substantive. The position of First Minister is itself only one half of a joint office, functioning in tandem with that of deputy First Minister. As the former (unionist) MLA John McCallister once colourfully put it, one can’t order a fish supper without the other’s say so. In other words, the two roles are inherently equal and interdependent – as the resignation of Martin McGuinness illustrated five years ago by triggering the collapse of the entire government.

Despite the fact that Sinn Féin and the DUP have managed to share power through these and other ministerial offices for the most part since 2007, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and functionality, it remains to be seen whether the DUP – or another unionist party – would accept the nominal ‘deputy’ position. Refusal to do so would, of course, trigger a crisis, potentially mothballing the devolved institutions indefinitely.

Concerns about such a scenario are not unfounded. Neither the DUP nor the UUP has explicitly confirmed in recent months that they would share power with a Sinn Féin First Minister. And even setting aside that particular issue, the leader of the DUP has already repeatedly threatened to trigger an early election over the Protocol. In December 2021 Sir Jeffrey Donaldson warned that his party’s continued participation in the political institutions is not sustainable, in the absence of action to remove the Irish Sea Border.

Still, despite the fragility of Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions, which is nothing new, there is good reason to expect that they will weather the turbulence before and after the election. The reason is that, quite simply, there is no clear alternative to them. The fundamental question for unionists is this: would the overall position of unionism be strengthened or weakened by walking away from Stormont? Bluntly, it is difficult to see how doing so would do anything other than weaken it, serving to alienate those whose support will be crucial in any future ‘border poll’. Incidentally, and paradoxically, it is firmly in the interests of nationalists to make Stormont work too, for precisely the same reason.

In the meantime, it is plausible to interpret hard talk from the DUP as a pre-election tactic. The party approaches the election bruised and with considerable Brexit baggage, and so it will want to try and keep its previous voters on board by focusing on present concerns over the Protocol and stopping Sinn Féin from becoming the largest party – resurrecting a well-worn theme from previous Assembly election campaigns.

These tactics are likely to help stem some of its support leaking to rival parties, but holding onto the 28 seats it won in 2017 will be a tall order. It is already down on its previous election performance, following the withdrawal of the whip from Jim Wells and the resignation of Alex Easton from the party. This means the DUP heads into the election with one seat fewer than the 27 won by Sinn Féin in 2017; the latter only needs to stand still to emerge on top.

In such a scenario, of course, it is not only for strategic interests that unionists should continue to share power. Crucially, it is what any genuine commitment to democracy requires. The principle of ‘losers’ consent’ is a vital ingredient in any sustainable democratic system, as illustrated only too recently in the United States. Ian Paisley cited Sinn Féin’s democratic mandate as a key reason for sharing office with Martin McGuinness in 2007; the same core principle stands in 2022.

The power, or not, of the ‘Others’

In any case, if we reflect on democratic mandates and power-sharing, there remains a tendency to understand the sharing of power as simply between unionists and nationalists. To do so would fail to reflect the contemporary political landscape in Northern Ireland. If, again, we imagine a scenario in which Sinn Féin becomes the largest party, it is not a given that the second-largest party will necessarily be a unionist party. Indeed, given the Alliance ‘surge’ in the 2019 local and European Parliament elections, it is not inconceivable that it could leapfrog its unionist competitors. Under this scenario, Alliance would not be in a position to nominate a deputy First Minister; that position would go to the largest party in the next-largest political designation (assuming that the ‘Others’ were not that designation).

In the early days of power-sharing the focus was, understandably, on the sharing of power between the two traditional sides of the divide. In the first Assembly election Alliance received 5.6% of first preferences, and its percentage share of the vote has failed to enter double digits in any subsequent contest at the Assembly level. If, as expected, Alliance does reach that milestone for the first time this year, it will reinforce the fact that there are three political minorities in Northern Ireland: nationalists, unionists, and those who are neither nationalist nor unionist. A constructive and inclusive conversation is overdue as to how Northern Ireland’s institutions can best reflect the different context that exists today compared to 1998.

At this point, what may be less clear is just how much common ground exists between these groups – at least among voters, if not necessarily among the main political parties. According to a survey conducted by the University of Liverpool in October 2021, health emerged as the most important issue facing people in Northern Ireland – the top priority among those who want Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, those who support a united Ireland, and those who are undecided. The Covid recovery was the second most popular response – both overall and, again, within those three groups. Other issues, including constitutional issues, are of course still important to many voters, but their immediate importance should not be overstated.

In this upcoming election, there may well be a test for Northern Ireland’s political institutions. It is a test that can and should be overcome. The biggest test will almost certainly come afterwards: the extent to which Northern Ireland’s next government can adequately deliver on the issues that voters say are most important to them. For now, the political parties competing in this election owe it to the electorate to explain how they plan to address these issues.

Where the parties stand ahead of the 2022 Assembly election campaign
Notes: 2017 Assembly election vote share based on first preferences. The University of Liverpool survey of 1,002 participants was conducted online between 21 and 29 October 2021; it has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points. The LucidTalk poll of 3,298 respondents was conducted online between 5 and 8 November 2021; it has a margin of error of +/- 2.3 percentage points. These are the only publicly available polling figures from the last three months.