Only ten months since the previous election, the good folk of Northern Ireland return to the polling booths to elect their devolved legislative government. The election was triggered by the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister.
Normally, I don’t take much of an interest in Northern Irish politics. Like the London Mayoral elections, it’s something that tends not to directly affect me (or so it seems). Lastly, I don’t live there, so I won’t know enough about (and am not arrogant enough to form a 2nd-hand opinion of) the political issues there. We can all read the news and declare a point of view, but it’s never going to be accurate.
However ( 🙂 ), this election has come about in the midst of the Brexit debate, and given Northern Ireland’s voting intention in the Brexit referendum, it’s worth keeping an eye on what happens. With 56% of Northern Irish voters (eleven of the eighteen constituencies – 61%) voting to remain in the EU, there’s been a lot of speculation as to which direction Northern Ireland might go from here.
Today’s election is the first, and potentially the most valid political test for the voters. Will the Brexit result (i.e. Northern Ireland’s, and the UK’s as a whole) impact on voting behaviour? A decent shift in either direction from the previous Assembly result will be seized on by the side that makes the gains as vindication for their political views. Expect much flannel from all sides.
There is one other aspect to this election that may shake things up slightly. In 2016, the Assembly passed a Reduction of Numbers Act which will mean that each of the 18 constituencies elects five members instead of six, so the assembly will be reduced from 108 member to just 90. By and large, this won’t change things too much, as we can see here, but if we drill into the numbers a little more, we find:
Obviously, this is based solely on the election data from 2016, so it’s just highlighting that there would have been a slight shift in percentages. It’s something we should factor in when assessing any result.
Another factor that may be even more significant is that a far greater proportion of the Northern Irish television audience tuned in to the BBC’s televised debate than in 2016. According to Sam McBride, an average of 172,000 people (31% of all viewers at the time) tuned in to the debate, up from an average of 24%. The previous year’s debate had an average of 98,000 (18%) tuning in.
This suggests that the turnout today might be far higher than last year. Certainly, the turnout of the N.I. Brexit vote at 63% far exceeded the 2016 Assembly election turnout of 55%. Of course turnout speculation doesn’t hint at what which parties may benefit from a higher turnout.
Another thing to bear in mind is that the Northern Irish Assembly elects its candidates via a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. So as with the Scottish parliament, there’s going to be lots of tactical voting, accusations of “a vote for party x will elect party y” and so on.
Will the result be Brexit-influenced? Will it be a typical unionist / nationalist election? The usual advice seems pertinent. Let’s wait and see.
Edit (11.20pm) – It seems that turnout is very strong, so it ought to be an interesting result. Results expected Friday PM.