We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill speaks after topping the poll at the Medow Bank election count centre. AP/PA Images

Brian Rowan Sinn Féin and Alliance's success represents a political shift in Northern Ireland

The former BBC correspondent says the story of “two tribes” in the North is now being stretched out across a wider canvas.

WHEN THE COUNTING is done, the winners stand out. They are instantly recognisable.

You see it in the spring in their step. Hear it in the laughter of happiness and success.

I was at the Belfast count centre on Saturday; there to be interviewed by Annita McVeigh across a few hours of coverage on the BBC News Channel.

For others, these days can be wake-like. The SDLP, in particular, has a lot to think about after this election and a set of results in which its Stormont numbers fell to eight.

The Ulster Unionists dropped to nine.

The count

As the results emerged, the big winners were Sinn Féin and Alliance.

Sinn Féin with more votes and more seats than the DUP and with the numbers to be First Minister. What has been properly described as a seismic moment.

Alliance more than doubled its Stormont representation. More evidence of a growing and more significant third pillar within our politics.

It means the story of here can no longer be told in the narrow frame of ‘two tribes’. It is being stretched out across a wider canvas.

The political ground is shifting.

britain-northern-ireland-election Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill and party leader Mary Lou McDonald after the party topped the poll at the Medow Bank election count centre on Saturday. AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

But will a fully-functioning Stormont now be restored?

Not until the DUP has answers on the post-Brexit Irish Sea Border – and on what will be done to address its concerns.

Those are not just about the new trading arrangements between GB and here, but about the status of Northern Ireland within the Union.

On Friday, party MP Sammy Wilson said the Assembly cannot function if the “poison of the protocol” is still there.

How long will it take to answer those questions?

How long is a piece of string?

How long will Stormont have to wait when there is no time for waiting?

People are struggling in a cost-of-living crisis and with pressures in the Health Service that need urgent attention.

Former NI Secretary of State Julian Smith, the co-architect with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney of the January 2020 agreement that put Stormont back in place after a three-year absence, hopes the current protocol negotiations can be accelerated “to deliver a rapid political solution”.

2022-ni-assembly-election Chief Executive of the DUP Timothy Johnston taking a photo of Keith Buchanan, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Gary Middleton, and Gregory Campbell MP and supporters at Meadowlands Arena. PA PA

He was writing in the Financial Times: “But beyond the problems with the protocol, there are few other excuses for politicians in Northern Ireland to delay forming an executive – Nationalists taking the First Minister slot is definitely not one of them,” he wrote.

The results

In a new executive, Sinn Féin’s leader in the north Michelle O’Neill will be First Minister.

This is the big story from the election, the “big idea” that energised and motivated people on the doorsteps.

Sinn Féin emerged from this election with 250,388 votes and 27 seats. The DUP had 184,002 votes and 25 seats.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had predicted that in such circumstances Sinn Féin’s call for a date for a border poll would get louder.

It was a last roll of the dice, trying to get the unionist vote both focused and out.

After a period of internal turmoil, his party had a better vote and seat tally than predicted, but not good enough to match the Sinn Féin surge.

In its build-up, this was a quieter version of the 2017 election, remembered for Arlene Foster’s rejection of an Irish Language Act and her description of Sinn Féin as a crocodile – that if you feed it, it will keep coming back for more.

In 2017, the DUP was still largest party, but by just one seat and a little over 1000 votes.

This time, Sinn Féin took that possibility of being First Minister to the doorsteps, the ‘big idea’, that to quote one source had eyes lighting up.

They won by more than 66,000 votes. The polls that suggested they would be the largest party were right.

A border poll?

In the office that leads the Stormont Executive, First Minister and deputy First Minister have equal powers, but in this place titles matter. First Minister has a better ring to it.

Does it mean that a border poll is closer?

This is a decision for the UK Government. Julian Smith reckons the chances of Boris Johnson acceding to one are next to nil.

2022-ni-assembly-election Newly elected Alliance Party of NI MLA Eoin Tennyson with his party leader Naomi Long and supporters celebrate his victory. PA PA

Boris Johnson won’t be there forever.

What will get louder will be the demands for planning and preparations to begin. The work on what any ‘New Ireland’ might look like and the conversations and research that will shape it.

Neither Orange nor Green can win such a poll. That’s the significance and the influence of that third pillar within our politics, and its thinking if/when such a poll occurs.

Alliance won 17 seats in the new Assembly, including one in North Antrim – the constituency long identified with the Paisley name.

Here Jim Allister of the TUV retained his seat, and although his party’s vote significantly increased across the frame, it could not add to its one seat at Stormont.

A few days ago, I wrote here that there was nothing dull about this election.

Look at the headlines telling a story of change.

Five years on from 2017, the quieter crocodile had a bigger bite.

It came back for more.

Brian Rowan is a journalist and author. He is a former BBC correspondent in Belfast. Brian is the author of several books on Northern Ireland’s peace process. His new book, “Political Purgatory – The Battle to Save Stormont and the Play for a New Ireland” is out now at Merrion Press.


Readers like you are keeping these stories free for everyone...
A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article. Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel