NI election results 2022: What does Sinn Féin's vote success mean?

By Luke Sproule
BBC News NI

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Image source, PA Media
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Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill (centre) is hoping to be the first nationalist politician to become NI's first minister

The results of the Northern Ireland Assembly election are in and, for the first time ever, Sinn Féin has won the most seats.

It's the first time ever that a nationalist party has been the largest at Stormont in terms of seats, 101 years after Northern Ireland came into existence.

It edged out the DUP, which is now the second-largest party. Alliance also had a historic result, winning 17 seats to become the third-largest party in the assembly.

So what happens next and what does it mean for the future of devolved government in Northern Ireland and for Northern Ireland itself?

Will Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill be first minister?

Not necessarily.

Under the power-sharing system of government in Northern Ireland, the largest unionist and nationalist parties must share the first minister and deputy first minister's post, while the other ministerial positions are allocated among the biggest parties based on how many seats they have in the assembly.

As the largest party, the rules say that Sinn Féin is the party entitled to hold the position. But the roles of first minister and deputy first minister are equal - despite their names - and one cannot hold office without the other.

So in order for Sinn Féin to hold the first minister position, the biggest party from the unionist bloc - the DUP - must agree to take up the deputy first minister's position.

On Monday, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he would not do so until his party's concerns about the post-Brexit trading arrangements contained in the Northern Ireland Protocol were resolved.

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (centre) withdrew Paul Givan (left) as NI's first minister in February in protest against the NI Protocol

Sir Jeffrey is opposed to the protocol and withdrew Paul Givan as first minister in February in protest against it.

The protocol is the part of the Brexit deal which applies to Northern Ireland and is designed to avoid a hard border between it and the Republic of Ireland. It means checks are required on goods coming into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, something unionists say undermines Northern Ireland's place in the union.

Even though the difference between the first minister and deputy first minister positions is in name only, Sinn Féin will draw a big symbolic boost from being entitled to hold the post.

For its first 50 years, Northern Ireland was ruled exclusively by unionists, and since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 a unionist politician has always been first minister.

What happens if the DUP does not nominate a deputy first minister?

The new assembly will meet on Friday and will elect a Speaker, who will then ask the parties for their nominations for first minister and deputy first minister.

If the DUP nominates a deputy first minister, then an executive can be formed and other ministers can be chosen. If it does not, then the process is more uncertain.

The DUP cannot nominate Sir Jeffrey, as he has stepped away from Stormont to remain as an MP at Westminster. He said he would not return to Stormont until his concerns with the protocol had been resolved.

Because of new rules which were brought in earlier in the year, the assembly will continue to exist in a caretaker capacity and the other ministers who were in place before the election - such as the health and education ministers - can stay in place.

This could continue for up to six months, while there would be negotiations to try to find a solution to the DUP's refusal to nominate a deputy first minister.

After six months, a fresh election could be called or the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis, would have to come up with an alternative solution.

Does this mean there will be a vote on a united Ireland?

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Sinn Féin's Mary-Lou McDonald (right) says planning for a unity referendum would come within a "five-year framework"

During the election campaign Sinn Féin's deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said that people were not "waking up thinking about Irish unity" and stressed that issues such as the cost-of-living crisis were bigger priorities.

But Sinn Féin remains committed to holding a referendum on Irish unification, and its manifesto called on the British and Irish governments to set a date for a border poll.

On Friday party leader Mary Lou McDonald said planning for a unity referendum would come within a "five-year framework".

The rules around holding a referendum are set out in the Good Friday Agreement - the 1998 peace agreement which ended the worst of the Troubles and set up the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It says the UK government's secretary of state for Northern Ireland can hold a referendum at any time. In addition it says he or she should call one if it appears a majority of voters would vote in favour of Irish unification.

Sinn Féin is likely to argue that things are moving in that direction, but unionists will argue that the nationalist vote share has gone down since 2017 and that shows there is no desire for a border poll.

Opinion polls have also not shown a majority in favour of a united Ireland.

The growth in support for the Alliance Party, which does not take a position on the topic of Irish unity, also complicates the issue.

How does power-sharing work?

Northern Ireland's devolved administration at Stormont - known as the executive - is made up of the first minister and deputy first minister and eight other ministers. It's known as a mandatory coalition, which means the largest parties are all entitled to at least one ministry.

A mathematical formula decides how many ministries they are entitled based on the number of seats they won.

However for an executive to be formed it would require the DUP to fill the deputy first minister's post.

You can read more about the power-sharing system here.

What does the Alliance surge mean?

The Alliance Party has won its biggest ever share of the first preference vote in a Northern Ireland Assembly election with 13.5% and also a record number of seats - 17.

The party, which was founded in 1970, won just eight seats at the last election in 2017, but it had good results in the European, council and Westminster elections of 2019 and has continued the trend this year.

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
The Alliance Party, led by Naomi Long seen in the centre here with victorious candidates, made big gains in the election

The party defines itself as being neither unionist or nationalist and aims to win votes from across Northern Ireland's traditional political divides.

The result is also a sign that more voters are moving away from the traditional unionist and nationalist blocs.

Alliance is likely to increase its calls for changes to how the system at Stormont works.

For example it wants the executive to become a voluntary coalition.

This would be a major change to the Good Friday Agreement and would require lengthy negotiations with the British and Irish governments and the other Northern Ireland parties.

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