Leona O'Neill: After an historic election, we are still back where we started

After an undoubtedly historic election, with republicans entitled to hold the first minister position, there is nonetheless a feeling that it's the 'same again' at Stormont, with deadlock - this time over the NI Protocol - stymieing positive government for all of us, writes Leona O'Neill

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long with fellow MLAs Sorcha Eastwood (Lagan Valley), John Blair (South Antrim) and Andrew Muir (North Down) at the election count in Jordanstown last week. Alliance more than doubled their Assembly seats to 17, suggesting a growth in voters who want a 'normal Northern Ireland', says Leona O'Neill. Picture by Pacemaker/Stephen Davison.

SO election season has come to a close and it has been a rough one for all of us.

We have lived through months of ceaseless fighting and squabbling, shouty political debates, dangerous rhetoric on the streets and fiery online discourse that would have shamed the devil.

And here we are with Sinn Féin and the DUP - who have struggled to work together for the past few years and have, between them, collapsed the Assembly twice - back on Top of the Pops as the two biggest parties.

This time around, though, Sinn Féin hold 27 seats, two more than the DUP, making them the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Sinn Féin are on course to hold the First Minister's position. This will be the first time in Northern Ireland's history that a nationalist will take the role, something that most nationalists are delighted about, and unionists aren't so happy about.

Sinn Féin can nominate a First Minister but can't actually take up the office unless the DUP agrees to nominate a Deputy First Minister.

The pressure is on DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson now to nominate and allow resumption of a fully functioning devolved government.

We haven't had one of those since February when the former First Minister, the DUP's Paul Given, resigned over the protocol and pulled the shutters down behind him.

Most of us were shocked that any party could do this in the midst of a cost of living crisis and with the health service groaning under the pressure of a continuing pandemic. And with things steadily getting financially worse for many families in Northern Ireland, many are wondering what the future will hold and if our political institutions will firstly be able to get together, and secondly if they will be capable of working together to fix things.

The new MLAs will be in Stormont this week to get settled in. The Assembly should, if things go according to normal plan, sit for the first time at the end of the week when a speaker is elected and First and Deputy First Minsters are nominated.

Although the Alliance surge gave me great hope that a good number of people here want a normal Northern Ireland, the 'same as it ever was' aspect of government - bar the historic nationalist majority - is really quite depressing.

We are back where we started with the DUP saying it will only return to power sharing if changes are secured to what they see as the contentious Northern Ireland protocol.

Only this time we are back with some fresh faces and minus some big political hitters, such as the SDLP's Nichola Mallon - the former infrastructure minister lost her seat in North Belfast.

I would love to get more excited about Northern Ireland politics beyond 'we have more seats than them', or 'our First Minister is a Catholic' or indeed 'our First Minister is a Protestant'.

I really wish I could get excited about people working together for the betterment of my family, of my kids, for a peaceful, united and viable Northern Ireland, looking positively to the future.

I wish I could get excited about the positive politics of this place. I know there will be strong people in government who will be battling for all of these important issues, for you, for me, for all of us.

I just hope that their voices are not drowned out by those who wish to ceaselessly frustrate our political establishments for their own agendas.

Those politicians who people have put their trust in must now honour that trust, take the responsibility gifted to them and get to work.

There is hard work to do, on the issues that we disagree on. If we don't iron them out, we will stay stuck here on this endlessly spinning roundabout that is Northern Ireland.

I wish them all the very best in their endeavours.

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