Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom but many government functions are exercised by a locally-elected Northern Ireland Assembly. This was established under the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
There are 90 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLA’s). Five are elected from each of the 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland using the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system of proportional representation. People vote in order of preferenPoce, i.e. give a 1 to their top choice, 2 to their next and so on, and if their first choice is for a candidate who has been elected by a bigger majority than they need, or for a candidate who doesn’t get many votes, their second and lower choices are counted. The outcome gives parties votes in rough proportion to their support in the electorate. No party stands a chance of getting an overall majority.
Northern Ireland works differently from most countries, in that there has usually been a coalition of all the parties rather than government and opposition. After an election, the largest party in the largest ‘community designation’ nominates the First Minister. The largest party in the second largest community chooses the Deputy First Minister. Both posts are formally equal in status. Other ministerial jobs are allocated in rotation depending on how many MLA’s are members of each party.
The Protestant community, and therefore the Unionist voting block, has been the largest since the establishment of Northern Ireland in 1921, but the next Census may show that the Catholic community is now larger. The political dominance of Unionism has declined; in the 2017 election 40 Unionist and 39 Nationalist MPs were elected and in the UK general election of 2019 Nationalist MPs (9) overtook Unionist MPs (8) for the first time ever. If this is reflected in the Assembly results it will mean a Nationalist First Minister for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland.
DUP – Democratic Unionist Party: (28 Assembly seats) Unionist means supporting Northern Ireland being part of the UK, a position mostly held among Protestant residents. The DUP opposed the Good Friday Agreement but following the St Andrew’s Agreement in 2006 Northern Ireland’s First Ministers have been DUP politicians: Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson, Arlene Foster and currently Paul Givan, the youngest occupant of the post. The current government is a coalition of the DUP and Sinn Féin; the other parties decided in 2016 that they would go into opposition rather than take government positions.
Sinn Fein: (27 Assembly seats) In the Irish language Sinn Féin means ‘we ourselves’. It is the main party of the Nationalist (mostly Catholic) community in Northern Ireland, and favours a united Ireland. It functioned as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the years of violent conflict but since 1998 it has gained electoral strength in Northern Ireland and recently in the rest of Ireland . The party’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, is deputy First Minister and depending on the election result could become First Minister.
SDLP – Social Democratic and Labour Party: (12 Assembly seats) Before the mid-2000s the SDLP was the main Nationalist party, peacefully supporting a united Ireland if a Northern Ireland majority consented and favouring closer links between the government in Dublin and the government in Belfast. Its electoral support is more middle class than Sinn Féin’s.
UUP – Ulster Unionist Party: (10 Assembly seats) The UUP was traditionally the main Unionist party but it was displaced by the DUP in the mid-2000s. It has usually been more moderate in its politics, agreeing to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and tends to have a more middle class electoral base than the DUP.
Alliance Party: (8 Assembly seats) The main philosophy of the Alliance Party is cross-community co-operation in politics and society between Catholic and Protestant within Northern Ireland. Its electoral support is fairly middle class and it is strongest in the suburbs around Belfast; its other policies tend to be similar to the Liberal Democrats in Britain. Their support has been rising in elections since 2017. The party is a ‘bridge’ that helps coalition politics work in Northern Ireland.#
Green Party: (2 Assembly seats) Not all politics in Northern Ireland is about constitutional issues – the Green Party stands for the same sort of social justice and environmental issues as its sister parties in other countries, and does not believe the Unionist/ Nationalist distinction should divide people. People Before Profit (PBP), a small left wing party, also won a seat in 2017, as did an Independent Unionist.
TUV – Traditional Unionist Voice: (1 Assembly seat) A small party that split from the DUP in 2007; it opposes the Good Friday Agreement and any co-operation with Sinn Féin.
Sources and further reading:
Financial Times, 5.1.22
The Guardian, 17.6.21