Last week's surprise election in Northern Ireland, called in the aftermath of the Renewable Heating Scheme (RHI) scandal, yielded a result that few predicted.
I spent the Friday of the election at Belfast’s Titanic Exhibition Centre, where all four Belfast constituencies were being counted – yielding a total of twenty Assembly members in the following 24 hours.
This number was reduced from the previous six per constituency, with the expectation that the reduction in seats would not come into force until the 2021 election. Now it was certain that at least 18 incumbents would not be returned. The lower district magnitude (number of seats per constituency) meant that a party would need to increase its vote share to retain its seats.
In general, a lower district magnitude favours larger parties for this reason – the quota to be elected is higher, and smaller parties that might have got elected on transfers later in the count have less chance of doing so. It created an added sense of interest in the result as two parties that were formerly part of the Northern Ireland Executive (the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)) had formed the first official opposition in decades after last year’s Assembly election.
The early indicators showed a hugely increased turnout – up ten points across Northern Ireland, with some constituencies registering an increase of up to 14 percent. But there was widespread uncertainty as to whether this meant that the ruling parties (the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin) would benefit from the reduction in the number of seats, or whether a widespread sense of dismay at the handling of RHI and a desire for change would damage both ruling parties.
As the first results began to be tallied in the early afternoon, a leading unionist commentator told me that it was, ‘a very bad day for unionism and a good one for nationalism’. Contradictory rumours abounded as commentators and pundits tried to make sense of an incomplete picture. There was word from Antrim that ‘transfers were bouncing around like no-one had ever seen’, the smaller parties believed that the high turnout would be a boon for them, and others were forecasting that the once dominant UUP might perform so badly that it wouldn’t even be able to form part of the official opposition.
As is the case with much rumour and speculation, these contained only partial truths – if any truth at all. After the initial flurry following the announcement of the first preference results, the excitement in the hall subsided as the process of redistributing transfers began. There was anxiety and fear in the faces of some very senior politicians, whilst excitement and anticipation marked out a few youthful newcomers. And as ever, there were those displaying the stoic resignation caused by years of participation in the democratic process despite minimal support or gains.
As the evening wore on a few themes became apparent. The reduction in district magnitude once called for by the DUP had contributed heavily to the loss of two of their most senior representatives in the north and the south of the city. Combined with a remarkable increase in turnout amongst nationalists, it also led to an improved showing for Sinn Féin in the west of the city, holding four seats at the expense of the SDLP. In east Belfast, the Alliance party fared well by holding onto their seats, again in spite of the lower district magnitude.
Across Northern Ireland the surge in nationalist turnout to benefit of Sinn Féin was undoubtedly the biggest story. There were other significant results – Derry socialist Eamonn McCann was another victim of the election. Having stood for election for the first time in 1969, he finally made it into office in 2016, only to lose his seat ten months later. Meanwhile, by the wee hours it became clear that the Greens had managed to retain their seat in south Belfast at the expense of the DUP (and indeed both their seats across NI).
On Saturday morning Northern Ireland woke up to a result in which, for the first in its history, there was not a unionist majority. What this means for the future of the devolved institutions at Stormont is yet unclear. But there's no denying that the ingredients of this election have made it a truly remarkable event – and a fascinating process to watch.