Thursday, March 8, 2007
Results are coming in for the Northern Ireland Assembly election held on Wednesday 7 March. With all first preference votes counted, both the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin have made gains: the DUP received 30.1% of first preferences, an increase of 4.4 percentage points on the 2003 election, while Sinn Féin won 26.2%, up 2.6 percentage points. This means that the two parties have gained more than half of the vote. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) came third with 15.2%, the Ulster Unionist Party fourth with 14.9% and the Alliance Party fifth with 5.2%.
The election is a crucial step in restoring devolved government to Northern Ireland, which has been under direct rule from Westminster since October 2002, when the Assembly was suspended after allegations that an IRA spy ring was operating there. The resulting court case collapsed. Attempts to get the leading unionist and nationalist parties to resume power-sharing had failed until the St Andrews Agreement was reached in October 2006. This agreement commits Sinn Féin to accepting the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the DUP to accepting power-sharing.
All 108 seats have now been filled. The DUP are the largest party with 36 seats, followed by Sinn Féin with 28 seats. Their combined total of 64 seats gives the two parties a majority of ten in the Assembly, assuming that they are willing to work together. Among others, DUP leader Ian Paisley has been elected in North Antrim, as has Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in West Belfast. DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson topped the poll in East Belfast, where Naomi Long of the Alliance Party was also elected. The leaders of the other two main parties were also elected: Mark Durkan of the SDLP was elected on the first count in Foyle, while Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey was elected on the third count in East Belfast. Alliance Party leader David Ford was elected in his constituency of South Antrim on the fifth count. Dawn Purvis, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), was elected on the last count in East Belfast. The Green Party won their first ever seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly, when their Northern Ireland chairperson Brian Wilson was elected on the tenth count in North Down with 2839 first preference votes.
Anna Lo of the Alliance Party has become the first candidate from an ethnic minority background to have been elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, winning a seat in South Belfast with the fourth highest first preference vote in the constituency, 3829 votes. She said her decision to stand had been an extension of her community work, and that she wanted to give a voice to Chinese people who never felt they had any part to play in Northern Ireland politics. She also said she hoped that indigenous voters who were fed up with "tribal politics" would give her their support, and that she was determined "to be much more than a candidate for ethnic minorities".
Counting the votes cast in the 600 polling stations continued through to Friday 9 March. Turnout was 63.5%, down 0.5 percentage points on the previous election. Assembly elections use the Single Transferable Vote (STV) method of proportional representation, with each constituency returning six MLAs.
A new power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive is to be formed by 26 March, according to the St Andrews Agreement. The election of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister requires the support of a majority of unionist MLAs and of nationalist MLAs ("parallel consent"). In practice this means that the largest unionist party and the largest nationalist party must agree to share power. If they cannot agree by the deadline the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont will be suspended again and MLAs will have their salaries and allowances stopped. Though there has been criticism of the deal reached at St Andrews by elements within both the DUP and Sinn Féin, the government in Westminster believes that these dissenters are in a minority.
Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said to CNN: "I'm optimistic that we can achieve a working government on March 26, but it's a very stark choice for them — get into power, or shut up shop". But he also warned that "if this falls over on March 26, there is no prospect of another settlement for a very long time, maybe years". On Friday 9 March Mr Hain began separate meetings with the leaders and deputy leaders of the DUP and Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said he had "no problem" with working with the Unionists and shaking the hand of Ian Paisley: "I think it is very, very important in terms of representing a community that for a long time was marginalized and excluded. We're about reaching out to the Unionists".
But Ian Paisley claimed that Sinn Féin's decision to support the police had been "qualified", and said, "you can't pick and choose how far you are prepared to go for peace." He also said that Sinn Féin had to "turn from their evil ways". To the BBC he said: "We will enter into talks tomorrow with the Secretary of State, we will be meeting the Prime Minister next week, and the hard negotiations are now going to start. Sinn Féin are not entitled to be at the table until they declare themselves for democracy. I am a democrat, I don't speak to loyalist paramilitaries, I don't speak to Sinn Féin".
On Friday 9 March British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern made a joint statement. They said, "The message of the electorate is clear. After so many years of frustration and disappointment, they want Northern Ireland to move on to build a better future together through the restored institutions. Many of the practical issues which have been raised in this election campaign can and should be resolved locally." They said that they would work closely with the Northern Irish parties to restore devolved government by the deadline of 26 March and praised the progress already made in this direction. "The people of Northern Ireland have suffered grievous pain and loss. But enormous progress has been made and there is now no good reason why we should not be able to complete this historic process. All must now take responsibility in government for building and consolidating peace, this is what the people of Northern Ireland want. They deserve no less."
== Related news ==
"New roadmap unveiled for Northern Ireland devolution" — Wikinews, October 14, 2006
"Sinn Fein votes to accept policing" — Wikinews, January 29, 2007
== Sources ==
"Northern Ireland election overview" — BBC News Online, March 9, 2007
"Greens make assembly breakthrough" — BBC News Online, March 9, 2007
"Hain in Paisley and Adams talks" — BBC News Online, March 9, 2007
Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. "PM/Taoiseach statement on Northern Ireland elections" — 10 Downing Street, March 9, 2007
"Time 'critical' for NI devolution" — BBC News Online, March 9, 2007
"Lo takes seat for South Belfast" — BBC News Online, March 8, 2007
"Leaders returned in assembly poll" — BBC News Online, March 8, 2007
"Northern Ireland vote count begins" — CNN, March 8, 2007
"Hain: Take power or shut up shop" — CNN, March 8, 2007
"DUP and Sinn Fein on top in poll" — BBC News Online, March 8, 2007
"In quotes: Assembly election" — BBC News Online, March 8, 2007
"Turnout up as Stormont poll ends" — BBC News Online, March 7, 2007
"Q&A: Northern Ireland Assembly" — BBC News Online, March 1, 2007