This week marks the end of Stormont’s term of office since the last election in March 2017. It marks the end of an elected term for which Professor Jonathon Tonge recalls has only sat for 40% of its time with a power-sharing executive between the major parties in the assembly. The 2022 election is shaping into a tough battle between the five major players of the DUP/UUP/Alliance/SDLP/Sinn Fein and probably for the first time, the Greens and TUV are also notching up the heat on the debate and election pollsters see a tight, seesaw battle between seven different parties.
Sometimes history provides us with an insight into the future, especially when it comes to foreshadowing politics. So ahead of the May election, we can look back to the 1969 “crossroads” election to see what might happen come election day this year. A lot of things have changed since 1969, the fact that Stormont was removed for almost 30 years soon after, but are the conditions set similar in that election to that of this year?
The 1969 election was called in early February by the then Ulster Unionist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill to gather momentum behind his policies and reforms amid protests for civil rights and opposition within unionism against his leadership. O’Neill found the short three week campaign a gruelling one as he tried to nominate various candidates to stand for his party – many of them were rejected by the local UUP associations and as a result, O’Neill supported a few independent candidates in races against his own party.
The 2022 election has had similar preludes. Sinn Fein has had 14 changes to its MLA team since 2017, of which 12 have been female co-optees. Many see the failed bid by John O’Dowd at the 2018 party conference in Derry against Michelle O’Neill as one reason why so many MLAs have been removed and replaced. Last year’s events around the resignations of Martina Anderson and Karen Mullan called into question the co-option system, with allegations that Sinn Fein had “parachuted” in various new members to purge those who supported John O’Dowd’s leadership bid without the consent of the electorate.
Similarly, the problematic nomination process for election has found its way into the SDLP, DUP and UUP. Feuding over the nomination of Adam Gannon instead of Ritchie McPhillips in Fermanagh-South Tyrone caused some disruption to the SDLP’s nomination process. The UUP leader being critiqued by the party’s West Tyrone association over the nomination of Ian Marshall, an ex-Irish Senator in the Oireachtas for two years. The DUP too have had some constituency wrangling also, with Edwin Poots’ failed bid to run in South Down for the election and many pro-Poots members standing down or being forced out before nominations close for the election campaign of the DUP begins in earnest.
Probably for the first time in Northern Ireland’s short history has the prospect of voters going to the polling station in May ever made so many party leaders feel butterflies. Just as for Terence O’Neill in the “crossroads” election, the leader of unionism is in a fight for his political career and position as party leader. Jeffrey Donaldson is not helped by sagging opinion polls which say his party will finish in second place, behind Sinn Fein. For the party that has been in pole position since 2003, falling below expectations is not something that the party leader could continue his job with. If the DUP fell on its sword to another unionist party, Jeffrey Donaldson’s position would become unsustainable, and the DUP will be looking for a new leader and a re-think of policy.
The 1969 Stormont election provides us with an interesting example of the tussles within northern nationalism. Four nationalist parties contested seats against each other, alongside various independents like John Hume who unseated the leader of the Nationalist Party, Eddie McAteer in the Foyle constituency on election day. The election this year has similar workings within the nationalist electorate, with the arrival of a close battle between the SDLP and Sinn Fein along with candidates from the new Aontú party vying for supremacy in “green” constituencies like west Belfast and Foyle.
The surge in the centre ground parties, like Alliance and the Greens is also noted with similarity to 1969. The then Northern Ireland Labour Party and Ulster Liberal Party racked up over 50,000 votes in the “crossroads” election, just under 10% of the valid poll. The emergence of centre ground politics in that election, along with the ultimate downfall of O’Neillism in the UUP led to the New Ulster Movement’s decision the following year to form the Alliance Party. Is the 2022 election leading voters towards the centre ground? Will it mean a new centre ground party in the making (remember the NI21 idea?)?
The NI21 project put forward by ex-UUP MLAs Basil McCrea and John McAllister offered the possibility of a pro-union, centre ground party in 2014 who would register as “other” in the Stormont assembly. In the European elections that same year, they polled over 10,000 votes. However, by 2016 NI21 ceased to exist after disputes broke out between McCrea and McAllister over issues of leadership and standards investigations. Since then, the Alliance Party has largely been unchallenged as the leading party of the “other” designation. However, will the Greens dent the Alliance Surge come 5th May?
The Green Party have had some success in recent elections, with a record 8 local councillors elected in the 2019 local elections. Councillors Mal O’Hara and Brian Smyth aim to win seats in north and east Belfast at the assembly election after increasing the Green vote there in 2019. However, the Greens would consider holding their current MLA seats a success amid an increase in Alliance support.
Also to note is the comparison between 1969 and 2022 in ushering in the new, young talented politicians who may be elected to Stormont in May. The Alliance Party are one such party aiming to inject young reps into the new assembly. Eoin Tennyson is one candidate to watch as Alliance heads to polling day – he outpolled UUP leader Doug Beattie at the 2019 Westminster election by 236 votes, claiming third place behind the DUP and Sinn Fein candidates.
Other fresh talents some parties hope to see elected include Paul Doherty of the SDLP in west Belfast. It is a far cry from 1992 when the SDLP’s Joe Hendron defeated Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein to become a Westminster MP – the SDLP polled 17,415 votes then, but polled a dismal 3,452 votes in the 2017 assembly poll. With People Before Profit putting Gerry Carroll forward with no running mate, Paul Doherty may with the help of transfers oust Sinn Fein from winning a fourth seat this time round.
Another resemblance of the 1969 election comes in the form of the rise of Jim Allister’s TUV. Just like Ian Paisley’s electoral challenge in Terence O’Neill’s Bannside constituency in 1969, Jim Allister and his party pose a rejuvenated political assault on what they view as “sell out” unionism under the DUP and UUP. Allister, once a veteran of the DUP, is determined to have a second TUV MLA elected. He vows that “Stormont will never be the same again” should that happen. In North Antrim, TUV aim to become the biggest party with Matthew Armstrong standing as a second TUV candidate. With the popularity of the UUP’s Robin Swann as health minister, Allister’s hopes may be to unseat a DUP MLA and eye up his party to challenge the prized Westminster seat of North Antrim held by a Paisley continuously since 1970 in the future. Ian Paisley Junior has not had a good PR relationship with the press or public lately too.
Recent mood swings within unionism has led to a TUV electoral strategy for the election, resembling past “not an inch” and “Ulster says no” campaigning. Jim Allister has attended various anti-NI Protocol rallies alongside ex-Labour MP Kate Hoey, ex-Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib and activists Jamie Bryson and Moore Holmes. His party, one etched in social conservatism and Thatcherite economics is playing the role of rabble rouser and street protest very well…but will it make the cut come May 5th? We don’t know that until the votes have been cast and counted, but Jim Allister has certainly made the past few years at Stormont entertaining and intriguing to say the least.
For some of the election nerds out there (this one is for you David McCann), the extremely unpredictable (thanks to ATV) Australian federal election between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese comes up two weeks after what may well be the closest, most important and landmark Northern Ireland elections in at least 53 years. The importance of voting has never been clearer than when annoying campaign ads come on UTV and BBC NI for a few weeks – the things we have to endure at election time!
Prime Minister Terence O’Neill remarked in December 1968 that “Ulster stands at the crossroads.” The 2022 election to Stormont poses a similar crossroads between people making the right and wrong decision come polling day. Only time will tell whether May 5th will have been another watershed moment in Northern Ireland’s history of elections. As for 1969, we do know that O’Neill candidates polled 43.2% of the vote in the 1969 election, yet by May that year he resigned as Prime Minister and slowly slipped out of Northern Ireland politics. 2022 may prove the end of at least one party leader’s experiment.