On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Unionists suffer major losses in Northern Ireland

Irish unionists have suffered a near-disastrous election in Northern Ireland, losing 16 seats in the Assembly, and coming very close to conceding the post of First Minister to their main nationalist opponents, Sinn Féin.

With results from Thursday’s election now clear in all but one of the 18 electoral divisions, Sinn Féin appears to have won 27 seats in the 90-member Assembly, while the Democratic Unionist Party has won 28.

The two parties have only recently split from an uncomfortable coalition government, which they will now be forced to reestablish if they wish to sustain the devolved government in Belfast.

There will be another 11 unionist MLAs, 12 more nationalists from the SDLP party, 8 non-sectarian Alliance party MLAs, 2 Greens MLAs and 2 others.

Voters in Northern Ireland elect five MLAs in each of the 18 electoral divisions using the preferential STV system. Counting staff sort the ballots to eliminate unsuccessful candidates and distribute the preferences to the better-placed candidates to determine the five most favoured candidates in each division.

In the final electoral division where results are unclear – South Belfast – one Green and two DUP candidates are contesting the final two seats. The Green candidate Clare Bailey is leading by 1,600 votes, but if the DUP picks up both remaining seats on a strong and very even flow of UUP preferences the party’s seat tally will rise to 29.

If Bailey picks up at little as 5% of UUP preferences, or if the preference exhaust rate is high, or if one DUP candidate gets significantly more preferences than the other, she should hold her seat.

If Bailey does win a South Belfast seat for the Greens, the overall balance of unionists and nationalists will be tied at 39 seats each, with 12 other non-sectarian MLAs.

Never before have unionists failed to outnumber nationalists in a parliament in Northern Ireland.

Total votes cast for unionist parties has fallen to 44% – the lowest result ever.

Votes for nationalists stood at just shy of 40%, while support for other parties not specifically identifying with the two ‘communities’ was at 16%.

Total votes for candidates from the DUP, the Ulster Unionists (UUP) or both were down in 16 of the 18 electoral divisions.

The total vote for Sinn Féin candidates rose in all 18 divisions.

The DUP won 225,423 votes across all constituencies, with Sinn Féin winning only slightly less at 224,245 – easily Sinn Féin’s highest ever support in the electorate.

After voter participation had been falling at each of the four previous Assembly elections, and with voter registration actually slightly down compared to the last poll, the electorate has surprised pundits with a 10% increase in turnout to 64%.

The snap election, called over a crisis within the DUP- Sinn Féin coalition government, saw the Assembly shrink by 18 seats due to a recent change to its composition.

16 of the 18 seats disappearing have gone from the unionists parties. The DUP has lost 10 seats, and the UUP is 6 seats down, on the 2016 election results.

Sinn Féin appears to have lost a single seat in the face of the shrinkage of the Assembly. The SDLP, the Alliance and (depending on the South Belfast result) the Greens will have exactly the same numbers of seats they held in the larger Assembly. The left-wing People Before Profit minor party will lose one of its previous two seats.

Under the Assembly’s unique power-sharing rules, the largest party from each of the unionist and nationalist communities are obliged to join in a power-sharing ministry. That means sitting DUP First Minister Arlene Foster and new Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill will need to sit down and agree terms for a new coalition government.

Since the snap election was called over strident Sinn Féin demands for Foster to resign, such negotiations may prove awkward.

Which party leader becomes First Minister depends on which party has the larger Assembly delegation, with Foster’s DUP appearing to hold a one-seat advantage*.

Foster could choose to step down regardless, taking responsibility for the seat losses and clearing the way for a new DUP leader to negotiate for a governing coalition.

If the two leaders fail to agree within three weeks, the UK Government in London could dissolve the Assembly again for another election, or even suspend devolved government altogether.

Whilst the election result in Northern Ireland partly fits the recent pattern of surprise election outcomes around the world, Sinn Féin has little in common with other insurgent political parties, being noticeably progressive in political character.

The Northern Irish elections also saw little of the ‘populist’ issue debates seen in other countries, being mainly concerned with domestic policies, the performance of First Minister Foster and the general performance of the power-sharing system.

Voters appear to have delivered the DUP a serious correction, and strengthened Sinn Féin’s hand, while sending both parties back with a message to sort out their differences.



* The rules for which party may nominate the First Minister, and which then nominates the Deputy First Minister, are set out in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Basically, the party with the largest number of seats nominates the First Minister, and if two parties are tied then the aggregate first preference vote from the election is used to split them. Essentially, this means that on Thursday’s poll results the DUP will retain the right to nominate the First Minister. The difference, while of political significance, is fairly nominal for the operation of the resulting coalition government, as the power-sharing rules of the Act require both the leading executives to work jointly.

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