Northern Ireland election: Why Sinn Fein gains are a big deal

Northern Ireland election: Why Sinn Fein gains are a big deal

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein has managed to cut the majority of the Democratic Unionist Party to a single seat in a snap election.

Although the DUP is still the biggest party, the results mean completely new ground for Northern Ireland.

The unionists previously had a 10-seat majority, but they now have 28 out of 90 seats, while Sinn Fein has 27, after a high voter turnout of 65%.

Why was there a snap election in the first place?

Leader of the DUP Arlene Foster (Brian Lawless/PA)
Leader of the DUP Arlene Foster (Brian Lawless/PA)


Nothern Ireland has had a power-sharing devolved assembly since 2007 so it’s had to represent both the unionists and nationalists.

Earlier this year, leader of the DUP and first minister Arlene Foster were embroiled in a scandal surrounding the Renewable Heat Incentive which saw Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister, resign in protest. Because Foster refused to resign during the investigation into her role in the green energy scheme, the government collapsed and a snap election had to be called.

What is the ‘petition of concern’?

For the first time, unionists won’t have the overall majority which affects Stormont’s “petition of concern”.

A petition of concern can be brought by 30 or more MLAs to veto particular bills, like marriage equality or any amendments to the abortion laws. With fewer MLAs, the DUP has lost the ability to do that.

Same-sex marriage legislation could now by pushed by Sinn Fein. The party also backed legislation last year that would have allowed abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities. The amendment to the Justice Bill was blocked at the time, but now the party may have more power to make some progress in reforming abortion laws, although many other parties support the abortion ban.

What’s happened to other parties?

UUP Party Leader Mike Nesbitt announces his resignation (Liam McBurney/PA)
UUP Party Leader Mike Nesbitt announces his resignation (Liam McBurney/PA)


Arlene Foster is likely to face some scrutiny after the DUP lost such a big lead (and importantly, Stromont veto means). The nationalist SDLP is now the third largest party with 12 seats which was better than expected.

The Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has resigned after a poor showing – the party only has 10 Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) now. While the Alliance party has eight, the Greens two, People Before Profit one, Traditional Unionist Voice one and there’s one independent unionist.

It means the balance of unionist to nationalist is much more balanced than it was before – 40 unionists to 39 nationalist/republicans, with the remainder of the 90 MLAs affiliated to neither tradition.

What it might mean for Brexit

Sinn Fein party leader Michelle O'Neill wants to keep Northern Ireland in the EU (Niall Carson/PA)
Sinn Fein party leader Michelle O’Neill wants to keep Northern Ireland in the EU (Niall Carson/PA)


More uncertainly probably. Sinn Fein wants “special status” for Northern Ireland and for the whole of Ireland to remain in the EU (they want a more united Ireland). As Nicola Sturgeon ideally wants the same for Scotland, Theresa May has an even bigger fight on her hands to keep the UK united when it comes to Brexit.

What’s next?

It’s unclear at the moment whether it’s going to be possible for Northern Ireland to form a new government. They have three weeks to try and work something out though. If they can’t reach an agreement, Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire could advise that another election is called, or Westminster might have to temporarily take charge while a new administration is organised.

If that happens, questions will arise as to whether direct rule, instead of powersharing, would be the next option.