9th February 2022
The decision on Tuesday by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis to confirm that the Assembly Election will take place on May 5th as planned has provided some welcome certainty for politics in Northern Ireland after a week of instability.
The resignation of First Minster Paul Givan on Thursday 3rd February led to the breakdown of the Executive just over two years since it was reformed in January 2020 on foot of the New Decade, New Approach agreement.
The decision by Mr Givan, driven ostensibly by his party’s objections to the Northern Ireland Protocol, has left the Executive paralysed and the prospect of a significant period without a properly functioning Executive and Assembly looming on the horizon.
This piece will take a look at two areas, why did the DUP make the decision when they did and what that decision means for the future of the Executive.
While they’ll never say it out loud the DUP has been spooked by a series of opinion polls by polling company Lucid Talk over the 18 months. These polls have seen the party’s support level plummet from 28.1% at the last election to a low of 13% in the summer of 2021.
This, coupled with the stable support for Sinn Féin at 24-25%, has meant that the possibility of the DUP returning to the Assembly after the May 2022 election as the second largest party has become a real possibility.
The DUP didn’t sit on their hands when the prospect of a Sinn Féin First Minister became real.
The first casualty of the polls was former leader Arlene Foster who was deposed after a challenge from one of her Executive Ministers, Edwin Poots. However, this change at the top of the party failed to settle nerves and not long after, Poots himself was ousted in favour of Lagan Valley MP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson with hopes high that he could raise and solidify the party’s support.
A significant Donaldson bounce hasn’t materialised however, and January’s Lucid Talk poll showed the party support at 17%, continuing to haemorrhage support to the TUV. The NI Protocol is viewed by party leaders as a significant reason for growth of Jim Allister’s party.
With less than 100 days to the Assembly Election Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had to act, and fast. The decision by DAERA Minister Edwin Poots to order a withdrawal of the port checks required under the Protocol, followed by Mr Givan’s resignation were clear signs that the DUP was determined to take some of that potential lost vote back from the TUV. The question is, is it too little, too late?
What will this mean for the future of the Executive?
While the picture at the moment isn’t particularly clear, it’s difficult to see how many of the underlying problems can be easily addressed.
If the Lucid Talk figures are replicated in the upcoming Assembly election, then the prospect of a Sinn Féin First Minister will be highly likely (though not assured - much of that TUV vote will return to the DUP in transfers should candidates not get elected).
In that scenario it’s not unforeseeable that we could be without an Executive for quite some time, with the DUP reportedly reluctant to take the position of deputy First Minister in the Executive alongside a Sinn Féin First Minister.
Senior party figures have also indicated that they won’t return to the Executive without a deal on the protocol and issue outside of the hands of the parties in the Executive. There is no guarantee that this issue will be resolved to their satisfaction in the coming weeks or even months - meaning the return of the Executive post election could again be in doubt.
What is clear however is that the 2022 Assembly Election on May 5th will be box office viewing for political junkies and amateur psephologists alike.
By Seamus Donnelly