NI Political Situation Clear as Mud

Talk about muddy waters. Thursday’s special election in Northern Ireland raised more questions than answers about power-sharing and a potential border poll.

The unionist DUP wound up with 28 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly versus 27 seats for the republican Sinn Fein. Fewer than 1,200 votes separated the parties.

But looking beyond the main parties, to those that lean one way or another, it’s pretty much of a tie. The main parties have three weeks to form a new power-sharing government, which remains very much in doubt as the leaders of both parties remain entrenched in rhetoric.

Failure to form a new government could mean the return of direct rule from London, which I’m not sure anyone wants. The election was historic in that unionists will not have an overall majority should the new government be formed, the first time in 100 years.

Election differences to US

This was a special election triggered in January by the deputy first minister from Sinn Fein resigning and the party not appointing a new minister. After a short election period, which saw greater Belfast blanketed with election placards affixed with zip ties to utility poles, nearly two-thirds of voters turned out. In the last US election, which was regularly scheduled and much expected, only 55% of eligible voters turned out. I think that speaks volumes about participation in the political process.

I’ll point you to a previous column about the political situation in Northern Ireland for the reasons behind the special election, but I wanted to point out the differences between the election systems.

Regardless of your political position, I think you would agree that many US voters wished they had had more choice among candidates, that neither Democrats nor Republicans truly represent their feelings. But in a two-party, winner-take-all system, voting for a third-party candidate is like whizzing in the wind.

In Northern Ireland, fractional votes count. In other words, you don’t just vote for a single candidate. You rank the candidates according to your preferences. In some cases, the fourth or fifth choice could swing an assembly seat one way or the other, which happened in this case. Some voters we talked to take great delight in listing their most-despised candidates 12th and 13th out of a field of 13.

To me, that seems like a much better way for the electorate to be heard.

Now for the border question

Beyond the power-sharing question, political pundits also are talking about the potential for a poll on whether Northern Ireland remains in the UK in the wake of Brexit. The divorce of Great Britain from the European Union means the border between Great Britain and the EU will become the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The island is accustomed to free movement of people and goods. The only way you know you’ve passed from one country to another is whether the signs are also in Irish and whether the speed limit signs are in kilometers or miles per hour.

No one is talking about a hard border and immigration checks, but Brexit and the nationalist gains in this election bring up larger issues about where Northern Ireland believes it belongs in the world order.

And if no government is formed in three weeks, yet another snap election is possible. So stay tuned.

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