Northern Ireland: Stormont future clouded in uncertainty following Sinn Fein triumph

Sinn Fein has become the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time after a historic election triumph.

While the republican party is entitled to the first minister’s role, uncertainty continues to hang over the future of the devolved legislature in Belfast.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has urged DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to nominate a deputy first minister to allow resumption of fully functioning devolved government.

Here are answers to some of the questions about the Stormont election result and the prospects of a return to powersharing.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill (left) arrive at the Northern Ireland Assembly Election. Picture, Niall Carson/PA Wire

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– Will Michelle O’Neill become first minister?

She will certainly be entitled to the post but there is a distinct possibility Sinn Fein could be prevented from taking up the first minister’s job, in the short to medium term at least, due to a lack of a willing partner in government.

Somewhat confusingly, there is no legal difference or power disparity between Stormont’s first and deputy first ministers – their co-equal status is a cornerstone of the region’s powersharing structures.

Under current rules, the largest unionist party occupies one of the posts and the largest nationalist party occupies the other, with the first minister’s job going to the one that has more seats.

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The result of the election means Sinn Fein, with 27 seats compared to the DUP’s 25, will be entitled to the first minister’s role and the DUP to the deputy first minister’s.

Crucially, however, a properly functioning ministerial executive cannot be formed without both roles being filled. One cannot be in post without the other.

The last ministerial executive imploded in February when the DUP withdrew its first minister Paul Givan in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol, a post-Brexit trading arrangement that has enraged unionists by creating economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK.

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Mr Givan’s resignation automatically removed Ms O’Neill as deputy first minister.

While Ms O’Neill has said she will be there on “day one” ready to form a government when the new Assembly meets in the coming week, the DUP has made clear it will not return to powersharing until changes to the protocol have been secured.

In that context, the actions of the UK Government, either in conjunction with the EU or through unilateral action, will be key.

It remains unclear whether any signal of intent from the Government in the days ahead will be sufficient for the DUP to agree to form a new executive.

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– Is an immediate crisis looming?

A recent law change means that the last executive, which operated in shadow format after Mr Givan’s resignation, can trundle on for six months without a first and deputy first minister in place.

Before that change, failure to nominate to those positions within a week of the Assembly returning would have led to full-scale collapse of devolution and would have placed an onus on the UK Government to call another election.

With this buffer now in place, and departmental ministers from the last mandate able to continue in their jobs (or their parties nominate a replacement), there is less immediate pressure to secure a political breakthrough in the coming days.

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However, if the six months was to elapse, the Government will again assume a legal responsibility to call an Assembly election.

Some within unionism have urged the DUP to wait out this period and take their chances with the electorate once again at the end of the year.

Unionist hardliners will also put pressure on the DUP to never serve as deputy first minister to a Sinn Fein first minister, regardless of action on the protocol.

This view may well factor in the party’s considerations, particularly given the rise in support for the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party.

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However, in recent days some senior DUP figures have at least hinted that the party would be prepared to serve as deputy first minister, if concessions on the protocol are delivered.

– Is a poll on a united Ireland any closer?

While Sinn Fein has gained no more power by displacing the DUP as the largest party, the result is undoubtedly a symbolically significant moment in the post-Good Friday Agreement era.

A party that wants to ultimately see the end of the state called Northern Ireland is entitled to serve as its first minister.

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But it should be stressed that Sinn Fein’s electoral advances do not necessarily translate into a sharp rise in support for reunification.

In fact, the overall nationalist vote (adding in other parties such as the SDLP) has not surged and is still behind the overall unionist vote, albeit the gap has narrowed in recent years.

There are still more MLAs at Stormont who designate as unionist to those designating as nationalist.

What the result does emphasis is the increasing influence of voters who align themselves as neither nationalist nor unionist – this is manifested in the continued electoral successes of the cross-community Alliance Party, which more than doubled its number of seats in the election.

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With not much dividing the size of the nationalist and unionist blocs, it is clear the votes of the so-called “others” would be crucial if a referendum was to be held.

However, the responsibility for calling a vote lies squarely with the UK Government.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, a poll should be called if the secretary of state believes that it appears likely that a majority would back constitutional change.

There is very little additional information in the public domain as to what evidence the secretary of state is obliged to rely on to inform this decision.

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Election results will undoubtedly be a consideration.

While Sinn Fein will insist its electoral success in recent days shows the time to prepare for a poll is now, unionists will point to the lack of overall surge in nationalist sentiment to counter that claim.

A border poll on Irish unification is “some way off”, the shadow secretary for Northern Ireland has said.

Peter Kyle MP told LBC: “Only a third of people, about 32%, in Northern Ireland do support a border poll.

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“So this is some way off. And people have said very, very clearly in this election in Northern Ireland that the priority is the cost of living challenge.

“Second priority is getting public services improved, and other areas of public life sorted out.

“So those are the priorities now.”

– Will DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson remain an MLA for long?

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When Sir Jeffrey took the reins of the party last summer he pledged to relinquish his long-held Westminster seat and return to Stormont to lead the party from Belfast.

Despite that commitment, uncertainty remains over his short-term future after he romped home as a poll topper in Lagan Valley.

Much has changed since last summer, most notably the DUP move to collapse the executive in February, and Sir Jeffrey has made clear his party will not return to an administration without movement on the protocol.

To date he has not confirmed whether he will actually take up his role as an MLA.

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An alternative strategy could see him co-opt a party colleague into the seat he has just won to enable him to remain as an MP until such time as he is prepared to re-enter powersharing.

Such a move would undoubtedly prove controversial.

Sir Jeffrey has said he will provide clarity around his intentions in the coming week.