“History has been made in the Assembly election,” wrote John Hedges, editor of Irish republican newspaper An Phoblacht on the outcome of Northern Ireland’s March 2 elections to the Stormont Assembly in the six counties of Ireland still claimed by Britain.
“Unionism has been shaken to its core by an election result that has rocked the foundations of its former citadel of Stormont, once a byword for sectarian domination, discrimination and oppression.”
For the first time since Ireland was partitioned in 1921 as part of a treaty to end Ireland’s War of Independence, supporters of Northern Ireland’s “union” with the British state no longer hold a majority in Stormont.
The Northern Ireland statelet was set up with an artificial majority to the largely pro-British Protestant community, which enjoyed privileges over the largely nationalist Catholic minority.
A civil rights movement in the late 1960s demanding equality for Catholics was violently repressed, leading to “The Troubles” — decades of violence between British and unionist forces on one hand, and republicans fighting for a united Ireland on the other.
A way forward to end the conflict was created by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which established the principle of power sharing between republicans and unionists —— as well as promising republicans a way forward to create a united Ireland if they could win majority support in the six counties.
Snap elections on March 2 were called after Irish republican party Sinn Fein walked away from the “power-sharing” administration with the Democratic Unionist Party over DUP leader Arlene Foster’s refusal to stand aside over a corruption scandal.
However, the scandal — over the mismanagement of a government-subsided energy program — was only the final straw amid growing anger at ongoing unionist sectarianism, and undermining of the peace process by British authorities and their unionist allies — as well as DUP-backed, British imposed austerity measures.
The March 2 vote resulted in a historic drop in the unionist vote and a big rise in support for Sinn Fein — leaving the DUP (with 28 seats) just one seat ahead of Sinn Fein. The DUP’s failure to win a third of the seats (30 out of 90) means the socially conservative party will no longer be able to block marriage equality — an issue strongly supported by Sinn Fein and others in the Stormont.
Of even greater significance is that, for the first time in Northern Ireland’s assembly, the combined unionist forces do not hold a majority of seats.
The combined unionist seat count stands at 40, the seats of all nationalist-aligned forces (Sinn Fein and the moderate nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party) add up to 39. The remaining seats belong to forces not identified with either community.
In a context of huge anger over Northern Ireland being dragged out of the European Union by the Brexit vote, despite most in the six counties voting to remain, this shift in balance of forces puts the prospect of a united Ireland firmly on the table.
Expanding on the vote’s significance, Hedges wrote: “It should be remembered that it was Unionist Party rule from Stormont that ignited the Civil Rights movement in 1968/1969.
“It was the brutal suppression of unarmed protesters by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and its B-Specials reservists — on the orders of unionist ministers at Stormont — that provoked community resistance and ‘no-go areas’, the occupation of nationalist areas by the British Army and the conflict that followed.
“This election has been described by the mainstream media as a watershed. There is no denying that it marks a turning point.
“Unionism has lost its Stormont majority for the first time in history — in almost 100 years — since the imposition of the Orange State by the British government and the Unionist Party on a sectarian headcount in 1921...
“There is, undoubtedly, a natural celebration by republicans and nationalists of this dramatic breakthrough ... But while Sinn Fein will celebrate, it has no desire to be triumphalist. Its desire is to make politics work.
“The over-riding concern of republicans is to restore power-sharing in the spirit and practices of the Good Friday Agreement and to rebuild public confidence in institutions that they feel alienated from or antagonistic towards.”
Sinn Fein and the DUP have begun negotiations to re-establish a power-sharing administration — something they must achieve within three weeks of the March 2 vote or else new elections will be called.
However, Foster’s stubborn refusal to resign in the face of both the energy scandal and the historic electoral backlash has already emerged as a big stumbling block. Sinn Fein, while repeating its willingness to work with the DUP, continues to call for Foster to step aside.