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Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald. Alamy Stock Photo
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How likely is it that Sinn Féin wins the most Stormont seats - and what would that mean?

The Northern Ireland Assembly elections are on 5 May.

IN HER SPEECH in the Europa Hotel in Belfast a fortnight ago, Mary Lou McDonald ended by imagining a Stormont Executive without the DUP.

An administration based on delivery, she told Sinn Féin colleagues, would be the result.

Only McDonald wasn’t imagining the prospect: she was instead reflecting on the past few months following the DUP’s departure from power-sharing, and spinning it as a positive. 

The February decision by the DUP’s Paul Givan to resign as first minister imploded the executive, taking Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill with him from her position as deputy. 

Other ministers were able to stay in their roles as part of a shadow administration to sign off on various policies but the government cannot go on long-term without two premiers. 

This remains the question that hangs over the Northern Ireland Assembly election on 5 May, with no guarantee that the DUP will return to government after it. 

There are two reasons for this. The first is the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is unchanged and remains an issue for unionists. 

The second reason is the real possibility that Sinn Féin may be elected as the largest party in Stormont and would therefore be entitled to nominate a first minister. 

As part of the power-sharing structure formed as part of the Good Friday Agreement, the offices of first and deputy first minister must be shared between elected MLAs who designate themselves as either  ‘nationalist’ or ‘unionist’

Since the foundation of the Assembly, the office of first minister has always been held by a unionist. The DUP has held the position for the past 15 years and before that it was held by the UUP. 

With Sinn Féin now potentially the largest party in the new Assembly, the unionist parties are refusing to say if they would nominate a deputy first minister in such circumstances. 

For its part, Sinn Féin has said it will nominate for either the position of first or deputy first minister after the election. 

The Alliance Party has argued that the rules should be changed to end the mandatory coalition of the largest unionist and largest nationalist parties.

Its party leader Naomi Long has said that if the largest party does not wish to go into government it could instead go into opposition. 

Long says this would allow for a coalition of the parties “willing” to serve and would end the effective veto the two largest parties have on the operation of the Executive.  

Sinn Féin, however, is opposed to the change, insisting that it “will be defending, not renegotiating the Good Friday Agreement”. 

So in that context, how likely is it that Sinn Féin will be elected as the largest party in Stormont? 

In 2017, the party emerged with 27 MLAs, just one less than the DUPs 28. This time, polling indicates that Sinn Féin is on course to be the largest party.

A poll last week from the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool put support for Sinn Féin at 27%, some 7 points ahead of the DUP at 20%.     

Significantly, Sinn Féin’s popularity appears to be unchanged compared to the 2017 result whereas the DUP is down significantly from 28% to about 20%.

Speaking to The Journal, deputy editor of the Slugger O’Toole website David McCann says Sinn Féin’s objective in the 5 May vote is consolidation rather than an increase. 

Sinn Fein aren’t running to gain anywhere because that election couldn’t have gone any better for them last time. What they’re looking to do is protect their seats. Sinn Fein have a whole lot of constituencies where they’ve got more than one seat. North Belfast they’ve got one seat, in West Belfast they’ve got four out of the five seats.

In all the western constituencies, so West Tyrone, Fermanagh & South Tyrone, they’ve got three out of five seats, Mid Ulster they’ve got three out of five seats, Newry & Armagh three out of five. So they’re trying to protect the third seats in some of those constituencies.

McCann says Sinn Féin has so far run a “very disciplined and low level campaign” that is focused trying to avoid stoking any controversy that would give opponents even more of a reason to vote.

He points to the conciliatory positions Michelle O’Neill has taken on the Border Poll and the ‘exclusion’ of the Green Party from the Leaders Debate.  

McCann argues that what Sinn Féin needs to do is to not just win but to ensure it maintains a big enough gap between itself and the DUP.

“They need the DUP to be about seven or eight percentage points behind them because whilst the DUP could come behind Sinn Féin in terms of votes, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll come behind them in terms of seats.”

If you think back to 1998, the SDLP got more first preference votes than Ulster Unionists, but the Ulster Unionists still got more seats. Again in 2007, the SDLP got more votes than the Ulster Unionists who again got more seats. So that’s what Sinn Féin need, they need to be far enough ahead of the DUP to make sure that they’re the largest party. 

Sinn Féin is running 34 candidates across 18 constituencies so there are races to watch everywhere.

McCann says Sinn Fein’s performance in West Belfast will be a good barometer of their chances, while the DUP’s performance in Foyle will be a good indicator of how they’re likely to stack up across the province. 

All of that will play out at the ballot boxes from 5 May.

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