The recent election in the north of Ireland has produced quite extraordinary results. For the first time since partition, Unionists do not have a majority in Stormont. The March 2nd poll gave Unionists only 44% of the vote. According to one calculation, a mere 37,000 votes now separate the Unionist parties from those openly calling for a united Ireland.
Sinn Féin, which took advantage of Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster’s involvement in the so-called “cash for ash” scandal, made the greatest gains. Going into the election, Sinn Féin were ten seats short of the DUP and emerged just one behind. Among the more moderate parties, the nationalist SDLP pulled ahead of the unionist UUP. The latter’s leader, who surprisingly called for a transfer to the SDLP, has since resigned.
“Cash for ash” was a bungled version of a British scheme to encourage non-domestic consumers to switch to renewable heating methods, introduced five years ago when Foster was enterprise minister. The only problem was a total absence of cost controls, which meant that for consumers, the more they burned, the more subsidy they could claw back. By a conservative estimate, this has led to an overspend of £400 million - an absolutely colossal sum for an area with a population of only 1.8 million. Some say that had Foster resigned earlier, instead of denouncing her critics as misogynistic, the constitutional crisis that is now unfolding could have been avoided.
This crisis is caused by the fact the DUP, having fallen below 30 seats, are no longer large enough to trigger a “petition of concern”. This measure was originally introduced to prevent sectarian legislation being passed without the consent of either community, but the DUP has used it to veto progressive legislation. The Northern Irish Assembly has repeatedly voted to legalise same-sex marriage, but the DUP has used this device to block it. Younger voters expressed their contempt on March 2nd.
Voters also punished the DUP for being pro-Brexit. A majority of Northern Ireland voted Remain and the prospects of leaving will likely hit the region harder than any other part of the UK, and not just economically given the issue of the border. The extent to which the peace process can withstand these earthquakes is debatable.
The parties in the Assembly have very limited time to constitute a new executive. Failure to do so could lead to fresh elections and even the imposition of direct rule. With both Scotland and Northern Ireland hostile to Brexit, calls for new independence referenda in the air, and the House of Lords challenging the government’s exit strategy, Theresa May now faces a constitutional crisis on several fronts.