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Stormont – A Brief Political History

Northern Ireland is often seen as ‘different’ in political terms, but for many it’s not always clear why this is or how it manifests itself at Stormont and beyond. The contest which has emerged between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) this election may create the image of an institution which has always had these two parties front and centre, but this hasn’t always been the case – in fact, it’s a relatively new phenomenon.

Westminster politics is dominated by two parties – Conservatives and Labour – and a left/right division. In Northern Ireland that left/right demarcation has been overridden by the nationalist/unionist distinction, but each side has a variety of parties competing for votes (covered in a previous blog).

In the first election post-devolution in 1998, it was the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) who formed the initial First and deputy First Ministerial posts - the DUP and Sinn Fein followed as the third and fourth largest parties respectively and were viewed as being at the extremes of the political spectrum regarding unionism and nationalism.

Credit: Leonid Andronov

View of Belfast with the river LaganAt that time, the UUP was led by David Trimble and the SDLP by John Hume, who are both viewed as some of the most prominent figures in the peace process of Northern Ireland and who were both jointly awarded with a Nobel Peace Prize at the time. However, while David Trimble served as First Minister, it was Seamus Mallon and then Mark Durkan who took the deputy First Minister post.

It was only at the next election in 2003 which saw the rise of the DUP and Sinn Fein into first and second place – despite a rise in votes for the UUP, it also saw notable party members such as Jeffery Donaldson and Arlene Foster leave the UUP and later join the DUP. With the DUP opposed to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, however, an Executive was never formed - instead, the UK Government exercised direct rule from Westminster under successive Secretaries of State.

A series of negotiations then took place until the St. Andrews Agreement in 2006, which rectified a series of issues and created a transitional Assembly which lasted roughly two months until the next scheduled election in 2007. That election restored the Executive and ultimately returned the same results in terms of the previous election, with the DUP and Sinn Fein the first and second largest parties respectively.

The appointment of Rev. Ian Paisley as First Minister for the DUP and Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister for Sinn Fein remains a landmark in the devolution process, as the two parties, previously at opposite ends of the political spectrum, not only met in the middle but collaborated positively.

The 2011 election is where the DUP/Sinn Fein trend really started to appear, returning largely the same results with the DUP First Minister Peter Robison and Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness re-forming the Executive.

The 2016 election again had similar results for the Executive, except Arlene Foster now represented the DUP. Following this election, the UUP and the SDLP decided not to take their seats in the Executive, and instead formed Northern Ireland’s first official opposition.

This Executive lasted until 2017, when Sinn Fein resigned from the Executive in protest over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal – a scheme which had been set up by Ms Foster in a previous Ministerial role and ultimately incurred a heavy cost to the public purse. Sinn Fein’s refusal to nominate a successor to Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister triggered the collapse of the Executive, as Stormont required both First Minister and deputy First Minister roles to be filled to function.

Three years later, in January 2020, Stormont returned following the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ document – agreed to by both parties, it contains numerous commitments on a range of policy areas and timeframes for their implementation.

This time the Executive lasted roughly two years and functioned well – in February 2022, however, a month before the Assembly dissolved for the election, DUP First Minister Paul Givan resigned in protest to the NI Protocol. Due to UK legislation Stormont did not completely collapse this time and was still able to function, albeit in a limited capacity.

So, does the DUP/Sinn Fein trend look set to continue at this election? The answer is probably yes, but more likely in reverse – polling suggests this election will return a nationalist First Minister under Sinn Fein, unprecedented in the institution’s history, and a unionist DUP deputy First Minister, again unprecedented.

What that means going forward is currently unknown – such an opportunity for Sinn Fein would provide them with a greater chance to hold a border poll (a referendum on Northern Ireland uniting with the Republic of Ireland), though the party have recently has downplayed the urgency in which they would pursue this.

Likewise, the DUP have yet to confirm if they would agree to form an Executive with Sinn Fein in this scenario, saying an agreement would be pending on the Northern Ireland Protocol - although anxiety over entering into an Executive with a nationalist First Minister, bringing with it a higher chance of holding a border poll which threatens Northern Ireland’s place inside the UK, is also a factor. In that situation, could the DUP go into opposition, and would the UUP step up to nominate a deputy First Minister to maintain unionist representation in the Executive?

But just because it’s always been a nationalist/unionist narrative does not mean it will continue to be the case. One of the polling trends in the past 18 months has been the emergence of the Alliance Party coming through the centre and peeling off voters from nationalist and unionist camps to offer a cross-community alternative. Currently seeing a surge in support in the polls, could Alliance represent the future of Northern Ireland?

What happens next in Stormont’s political history? Whatever comes next, we don’t have long to wait.

Last updated 04/05/2022