NI Election 2022 analysis: Politics in Northern Ireland no longer has two, but three tribes

The Assembly election produced a seismic shift in the political landscape of Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin is set to make history as the biggest party in Stormont, with a nationalist empowered to take the post of Prime Minister for the first time.

This is a superb electoral victory for Michelle O’Neill’s party.

Read more:Northern Ireland Assembly LIVE election updates

Many thought his result in 2017 was a high watermark, spurred by anger over the RHI scandal, Arlene Foster’s crocodile comments and sympathy for Martin McGuinness’ ill health.

It was thought that Sinn Féin should encourage transfers to shore up a declining vote share.

However, the party won the popular vote in stunning fashion, raised its early preferences against such a high bar – and looks set to retain the 27 Assembly seats it won five years ago.

Sinn Féin has built a positive campaign around health services, the cost of living and Ms O’Neill being a ‘Prime Minister for all’.

He clearly resonated with Nationalist voters, rallied further by Unionist leaders refusing to say whether they would accept the post of Deputy Prime Minister if Sinn Féin became the largest party.

While Prime and Deputy Prime Minister are joint and equal roles, ultimately the symbolism that Nationalists should also have the right to serve as Prime Minister has proven powerful for many voters. .

The DUP falls to second place, but it has not been the election disaster for the main Unionist party that some polls and pundits had predicted.

The party reduced its number of candidates before the start of the elections, consolidating its overall vote and mitigating losses.

And his vote held up relatively well after focusing much of his campaign on warnings that a Sinn Féin premier would lead to a “dividing border poll”.

Many first-preference votes were lost to the TUV with its more hardline stance against the Northern Ireland Protocol of Brexit, but many went back to the DUP over transfers.

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Although the increase in TUV support has not translated into a wave of new seats, the party looks set to win a seat in Strangford.

It would mean party founder Jim Allister would have a colleague in the so-called “nasty corner” of the Assembly chamber for the first time.

The history of devolution in Stormont has been dominated by the two blocs of nationalism and unionism, but this election has seen the emergence of a unified third force in politics.

The huge increase in votes for the Alliance Party means that the House of Assembly no longer has two, but three major tribes – nationalism, unionism and others.

It is a continuation of the so-called “Alliance push” in the 2019 election which saw the party win a host of new council seats, a brief stint in the European Parliament and a seat in Westminster.

The latest wave of support will see the party mopping up seats across Northern Ireland to top pre-election expectations.

Expected second seats in South Belfast, North Down and Strangford as well as gains in North Belfast, East Antrim and South Down mean their number of MPs jumps from eight last time out to double digits.

The impact of all of the above has been a devastating pressure on the middle parties of unionism and nationalism as well as the Green Party.

The Greens look set to be wiped out, losing both of their Assembly seats, including that of party leader Clare Bailey in south Belfast.

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon, Stormont’s infrastructure minister, is set to lose in North Belfast to the Alliance’s Nuala McAllister.

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie is also struggling in Upper Bann.

As the count continues, some even question whether the SDLP and UUP will have enough seats to qualify for re-entry into Stormont’s power-sharing government.

There will be a lot of soul-searching for all three parties as they reflect on the results in the coming days and perform an autopsy on what went wrong.

For Stormont himself, this realignment of policy will strengthen arguments about the need to change the way the executive and assembly work.

Structures designed around power-sharing nationalists and trade unionists no longer become viable if large numbers of MPs agnostic on the constitutional issue are excluded from certain vetoes and votes.

All of this could get mixed up in a long process of negotiations between the parties on the reform of a decentralized government that could take several months.

Legislation passed by Westminster in February also means that current Stormont ministers can remain in office on an interim basis for months after the election if no deal is reached.

And with the DUP refusing to return to power-sharing until its Protocol concerns are resolved, no new executive is expected anytime soon.

Read more:Northern Ireland Assembly LIVE election updates

Read more:Stormont parties spend heavily on social media ads in final days of NI election campaign

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