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What are the Key Topics in this Election?

Beyond the Westminster bubble and across the Irish Sea, Northern Ireland’s small size belies the deeply interesting and complex nature of its culture, politics and people. To understand the election campaign in full, it’s helpful to contextualise some of the key topics of the campaign – to that end, we’ve helpfully laid out some out below.

Like everywhere across the UK, the cost-of-living crisis is impacting Northern Ireland significantly and has become the central focus of parties across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland for this election – because of this, however, the solutions presented are varied, and the power-sharing system of the Assembly means no singular party’s plan is guaranteed.

Credit: Roger Bradley

Northern Irish Assembly Building Adding to this, there are fears that lacking a functioning Executive following the election due to party political reasons will mean that measures to mitigate against this crisis, already seen in other devolved nations, will not materialise and so its effects will instead be compounded.

In Northern Ireland, a government must be agreed with cross-party consensus to ensure that neither one of Northern Ireland’s two communities dominates decision-making – however, forming these can provide difficult in times of disagreement, and a lack of an Executive hampers the work which can be done, or decisions which can be made on funding, making creating a functioning Executive following the election just as, if not more, important.

Indeed, such is the weight of the cost-of-living crisis and the need to address it that it’s even prompted Sinn Fein, on course to secure their first ever top place finish, to temporarily park the issue of a border poll (a referendum on Northern Ireland uniting with the Republic of Ireland) which would put into question Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.

Sensing that Sinn Fein are close to taking the position of First Minister for the first time in the history of the institution, this has presented another key issue – how will unionist parties react to a nationalist First Minister?

For unionists, this concept threatens Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom due to it almost certainly leading to some kind of referendum on joining the Republic of Ireland from a unionist perspective.

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) under Doug Beattie’s fresh leadership has been campaigning for a more progressive form of unionism and have stated they could consider forming an Executive with a Sinn Fein First Minister by taking the deputy First Minister position (also unprecedented for a unionist party), pending a negotiation to outline what that would mean.

Meanwhile the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have stated their return to a power sharing agreement (much more likely than the UUP if recent polling is to be believed) would depend on changes to the Northern Ireland (NI) Protocol, putting the formation of an Executive into question.

Indeed, for those within the unionist communities, the NI Protocol has also presented its own set of similar existential challenges due to the fact it puts a trade barrier down the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. A central concern for unionists, this separation (or indeed, any separation) from Great Britain threatens Northern Ireland’s place within the union of the United Kingdom, which has led to swift and vocal calls for its removal.

The differing perspectives over the NI Protocol makes it a hot-button issue - Paul Givan, former DUP First Minister, walked out of the Executive in February of this year in protest of the NI Protocol. However, other major parties such as Sinn Fein, Alliance and the SDLP feel the NI Protocol has the potential provide more benefits than issues, arguing it potentially provides access to both EU and Great British markets and are keen to make the NI Protocol work.

Elsewhere, Sinn Fein’s continued push for an Irish Language Act may also be a key factor at the negotiation table following the election. As part of the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal which restored Stormont in 2020, Sinn Fein has been calling on the implementation of an Irish Language Act which would give the Irish language equal status in Northern Ireland, similar to how Welsh is used in Wales.

The implementation of the legislation has proven tricky, however – it was recently pushed back by UK Government and faces opposition from unionist communities, who fear granting it would be one step closer to a united Ireland, meaning it could become another area of contention during the negotiation process when forming an Executive.

During the 2017 election Sinn Fein came within roughly 1,200 votes of becoming the largest party - this swing to Sinn Fein was in part due to then DUP leader Arlene Foster’s comments about ‘feeding crocodiles’ in relation to an Irish Language Act and how implementing this would only lead to further concessions, which in turn has only made Sinn Fein more determined when it came to making concessions on the Irish language.

Like everywhere post-pandemic, health is another area of concern for voters in Northern Ireland, with pressure leading to long waiting lists and difficulty in getting access to hospital services proving to be an issue. With the NI Protocol previously impacting medicine supply to Northern Ireland, it has led some, like DUP leader Sir Jeffery Donaldson, to claim the two issues are intertwined.

Health is a difficult portfolio for any minister to have, not least during an unprecedented pandemic, yet the UUP’s Robin Swann has consistently polled positively throughout his tenure of Health Minister during the pandemic. The question for the next Health Minister will be similar to those across the UK - how can the health service can recover, how can any backlogs ease and how can funding return to other services such as mental health? Those health service funding pressures will only be exacerbated by a Personal Injury Discount Rate of minus 1.50% imposed by the Department of Justice.

Climate change issues also have a unique narrative in Northern Ireland owing to the significant presence of the agricultural sector there. Northern Ireland has lagged when it comes to climate action, having previously been the only part of the UK and Ireland that did not have specific legislative commitments which would reduce the output of greenhouse gases.

The Assembly did manage to pass a Climate Change Bill just before it dissolved for the elections in March, though, which included an overall net-zero target for 2050 – however, it also included a separate reduction target of 46% for methane emissions, which is generally seen to be influenced by farming communities. The test for the next Assembly will be how climate change legislation can increase and progress whilst navigating Northern Ireland’s important agricultural sector.

Those are just some of the key topics at play for this election, but there’s still more to cover – check back here for more from us on the Northern Ireland election very soon.

Last updated 27/04/2022