The 2017 Westminster election in Northern Ireland is occurring in the shadow of the local assembly election that took place in March. With the negotiations for the NI executive suspended until after 8 June, the debates surrounding this process have featured prominently in current campaigning and electioneering.
The last assembly election took place only 10 months after the previous assembly election, due to the collapse of the executive which relies on cross-community support. This happened following public awareness being brought to bear on the excessive overspend of the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scheme.
Sinn Fein and other parties demanded that the first minister Arlene Foster step aside while an investigation took place. She refused, so the deputy first minister resigned, causing the executive to fall. This in turn precipitated an election which was notably heated and factious.
There are a variety of other issues at play besides the assembly election and the ensuing negotiations. As with the rest of the UK, Brexit has featured heavily in campaigning over the past number of weeks. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was the only larger party to support the Leave campaign, with the minor parties People Before Profit and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). The Alliance Party, the Green Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Fein have all strongly voiced a pro-European Union position, calling for a special designated status for NI and emphasising the necessity of a soft and frictionless border. However the proposal of an anti-Brexit pact to oppose the DUP in key constituencies was unsuccessful. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) backed Remain although they did not whip the party on this referendum issue.
The question of an Irish language act has been another area of contention, with nationalist and centrist parties calling for legislation similar to that in Scotland and Wales. The details of this bill have been contested but would likely include measures to support the use of the Irish language by public bodies, the courts and in Stormont itself, as well as the promotion of Irish language education. Opposition to this bill has mostly centred on the cost and effectiveness of such measures but it is a deeply symbolic issue and has become highly politicised.
Same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland is another contentious issue. It has been voted on five times in just a few years. Only on the fifth motion did a majority of MLAs vote for it, though the DUP used the petition of concern – a constitutional mechanism requiring cross community support – to defeat the motion. Other parties have claimed this is an abuse of the petition of concern and the reform of this mechanism has featured in executive negotiations.
Abortion has also featured prominently in the assembly election campaign. The DUP, SDLP and the smaller TUV are all self-described pro-life parties and support the law as it stands, which allows abortion only when the mother’s physical and mental health are at a serious and long-term risk. The Green Party, People Before Profit and other minor parties are in favour of full decriminalisation. In between these two positions, Sinn Fein advocate for abortion in cases of life-limiting conditions and sexual assault, and the Alliance Party and UUP hold no official party positions.
Sinn Fein gained from a surge of nationalist votes in the recent assembly election, leaving them only 1,000 votes behind the DUP. They also have an eye on the Republic of Ireland where they have been gaining strength in recent years. However Westminster elections can play out differently with more tactical voting coming into play alongside Sinn Fein’s abstentionism policy – Sinn Fein MPs refuse to swear allegiance to the monarchy and thus don’t take their seats at Westminster. Unionist parties hope to counter the previous surge by increasing their own votes. Breaking beyond this pattern of factious and tribal voting will require some re-imagination and re-envisioning from the Church and others in civil society.
As with the rest of the UK many of the 18 seats in Northern Ireland will undoubtedly return the incumbent MP. However, a number of constituencies have been the centre of much attention. A few seats changed hands last time and with three of the four Belfast constituencies under some degree of pressure, only the 8 June will reveal all.
Image used under CC 2.0 credit Robert Young