On Thursday 2 March people in the North of Ireland will go to the poll to vote for the new Assembly. Following the resignation of Deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein Martin McGuinness, last month, new elections have been called. The north’s largest unionist party, the DUP, had refused to tackle the accusation of corruption it faced and First Minister Arlene Foster, instead of stepping down as she should have done, has preferred to wait for Sinn Fein to resign and so trigger elections. Now the DUP is increasingly fearful amid predictions that it could fall below the thirty seats it needs to hold on to its veto over political change in the north of Ireland.
Mrs Foster directed attention to what she said was a “very real prospect” that Sinn Fein would emerge as Stormont’s largest party and claimed that would be a “disaster for unionism”. The DUP leader claimed opinion polls suggested it was “neck and neck between Gerry Adams/Sinn Fein and the DUP”. The UUP and SDLP were not running to win, she added, but “to stop the DUP from winning”. She also warned of the possibility of a Sinn Fein justice minister and, ironically, efforts to “rewrite the past” and a “sectarian abuse of power”.
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill (who will run for Sinn Fein for the post of First Minister) told the DUP leader to “stop fixating on Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein and recognise instead that she is in charge of her party in the region, not Mr Adams”.
O’Neill added: ”I want the institutions to work. Sinn Fein are committed to making the institutions work. We don’t need a new agreement. But we can only be in government with partners who are wedded to respect, equality and integrity,” she said.
The real concern for the DUP is that the party will fall below 30 seats in the reduced Assembly following the poll next Thursday. Under the new rules for this election, all of the constituencies have just five seats, one less than last year. Applying last year’s election results to the new set-up, the DUP is predicted by some commentators to lose up to nine seats, leaving it with 29.
Assuming the Assembly is eventually restored, the DUP will need to enlist the support of other unionists in order to continue to block change. Ms O’Neill warned against political instability in the aftermath of the election. “Political stability has been a key factor when it comes to attracting foreign direct investment, creating jobs, growing our economy,” she said.