Nationalist party Sinn Fein were the big winners of Thursday’s snap early election to the Stormont Assembly, on the back of increased voter turnout and a financial scandal that had brought down the latest power-sharing administration after just ten months. They advanced to within one seat of the Democratic Unionist Party, and finished just 0.2 per cent behind the DUP on first preference votes (seat numbers in the Assembly being reduced from 108 to 90).
In doing so, Sinn Fein helped bring the historic numerical dominance of unionism in Ulster assemblies to an end.
Despite a huge loss of its lead in both seat and vote share to Sinn Fein, the DUP will be happier with the outcome than it might have feared or the polls had indicated. The twin psychological blows of being relegated to second place behind Sinn Fein on either marker were both avoided, if very narrowly. And rival forces within the unionist camp failed to make inroads into the DUP’s hegemony: the Ulster Unionist Party leader resigned after his party slipped into fourth place on seats behind the SLDP, with the smaller TUV and PUP parties both losing votes.
The moderate nationalist SDLP was disappointed with its performance which delivered a flat vote share while Sinn Fein advanced, however the playout of the Single Transferable Vote system within smaller constituences (each reduced from six members to five) coupled with the splits in Unionist forces meant the SDLP managed to retain 12 seats even as the total size of the Assembly was cut.
Cross-community voice the Alliance Party was the other big election winner, advancing from 7.0 to 9.1 per cent of first preferences and also maintaining a constant 8 seats in the reduced chamber.
The loss of unionist support combined with the advance of the Alliance means that for the first time the unionist camp does not control a majority of seats at Stormont. The DUP has also lost its ability to veto certain measures – gay marriage being an oft-cited example – by falling narrowly below the one-third of seats threshold needed to trigger a ‘petition of concern’.
In total the nationalist vote share (SF, SDLP and People Before Profit) advanced 3.6 points to 41.6 per cent. Explicitly cross-community forces (APNI, Greens and CISTA) gained 11.6 per cent, 1.7 per cent. Unionist parties, mainland UK parties (such as UKIP and Conservatives) and independents shrank 5 points to 47 per cent.
Notwithstanding the electors’ verdict, Northern Ireland’s consociational constitutional arrangements practically compel the continuation of power-sharing between the largest parties of the unionist and nationalist camps, and talks will begin on Monday to that end.
FIRST PREFERENCE VOTES (%)
2 March 2017. Change on 5 May 2016 in brackets.
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) 28.1 (-1.1)
Sinn Fein (SF) 27.9 (+3.9)
Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) 12.9 (+0.3)
Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) 11.9 (-0.1)
Alliance Party (APNI) 9.1 (+2.1)
Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) 2.6 (-0.9)
Green Party 2.3 (-0.4)
Independents 1.8 (-1.5)
People Before Profit Alliance 1.8 (-0.2)
Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) 0.7 (-0.2)
Northern Ireland Conservatives 0.3 (-0.1)
Labour Alternative 0.3 (nc)
UK Independence Party (UKIP) 0.2 (-1.3)
CISTA (Cannabis reform) 0.2 (-0.2)
Workers’ Party 0.2 (nc)
ASSEMBLY SEATS GAINED
2 March 2017.
Change on 5 May 2016 in brackets, but note loss of 18 seats due to reduction in Assembly size
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) 28 (-10)
Sinn Fein (SF) 27 (-1)
Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) 12 (nc)
Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) 10 (-6)
Alliance Party (APNI) 8 (nc)
Green Party 2 (nc)
Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) 1 (nc)
People Before Profit Alliance 1 (-1)
Independent 1 (nc)
Total seats: 90 (was 108)
BALANCE OF FORCES
Total Unionist seats 40 of 90 (44.4%)
previously 56 of 108 seats (51.9%)
Total Nationalist seats 40 of 90 (44.4%)
previously 42 of 108 seats (38.9%)
Total cross-community seats 10 of 90 (11.1%)
previously 10 of 108 (9.3%)
2 March 2017: 64.78 per cent (812,783 votes)
5 May 2016: 54.91 per cent (703,744 votes)
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