How do elections to the Northern Ireland assembly work?
The elections to the Northern Ireland assembly are quite different to most UK elections. Members of the assembly are elected to 18 multi-member constituencies by single transferable vote.
Each constituency has five representatives, totalling 90 overall. Voters assign preferences to candidates on a ballot slip. If a candidate gets enough first-preference votes, they win a seat, and if not, second and then third preferences – and so on – are counted until all seats are filled.
Because of this, multiple counts are needed in each constituency, which means results can take a while to compile. It is possible for the first count not to result in the award of a seat. Another consequence is that it is not clear whether a party has increased or decreased its total seats in a constituency or overall, until all seats have been awarded.
By the terms of the Good Friday agreement the government of Northern Ireland is shared between the two main communities: nationalists, who favour closer ties with the Republic of Ireland, and unionists, for whom Northern Ireland’s position in the UK is more important. The largest party in the assembly appoints the first minister, and the largest party from the other community appoints the deputy first minister.
Some parties with cross-community support or whose supporters do not identify strongly with either community think this arrangement perpetuates divisions, but in practice since 1998 the largest party has always been from the unionist community and the second-largest from the nationalist.
In a piece from Edinburgh, historian Rory Scothorne reflects on the Tories’ woes in Scotland, where they have been replaced as the second party by Labour.
“Despite a respectable result last year when they held steady at Holyrood, under Douglas Ross’s leadership the Tories have failed to renew the sunny centre-right sensibility cultivated by Ruth Davidson, who fronted their recent revival,” he says.
“[Ross’s] flip-flopping over Johnson’s fitness to be prime minister – calling for resignation before withdrawing the demand – has only reinforced the sense of a man out of his depth.”
Scothorne adds that, despite Labour’s gains, the SNP still reign supreme, and that Scots are unlikely to deliver Keir Starmer a majority any time soon.
“[Scottish Labour Leader Anas] Sarwar has made small inroads into the softest, most discontented bits of the SNP vote via single transferable vote. But it is not yet enough to swing a first-past-the-post election away from the SNP, so long as independence delivers 40% of voters into the latter’s camp,” he says.
“Labour could irritate the SNP, however, simply by returning to main opposition status, and shedding the doomed aura that has shrouded their manoeuvres since 2015.”
Read the full piece here.
A picture from our correspondent Lisa O’Carroll at the count in Magherafelt, where Sinn Féin’s deputy leader, Michelle O’Neill, and the party president, Mary Lou McDonald, are expected shortly.
Supporters and Sinn Féin’s newly-elected assembly members are seen waiting to greet the pair.
Sam McBride, Northern Ireland editor of the Belfast Telegraph, says Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is “at best delusional” to claim the DUP has performed “extremely well” in the assembly elections.
The DUP Leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, has insisted his party is doing “extremely well” in the Stormont Assembly election.
The party is set to lose its place as the largest in the assembly to Sinn Féin, which has so far won 21 seats to the DUP’s 18. Sinn Fein also has the largest vote share, winning 29% of first preference ballots to the DUP’s 21%.
Speaking to reports, Donaldson said that unionism had “held its ground” and that, taken as a bloc, unionist parties would still hold the most seats in the assembly.
“I think there is a lot of spin around results and I’m very pleased with how the DUP has done in our constituencies,” he said.
Where things stand in Northern Ireland
Of the 90 seats up for grabs in the Northern Ireland assembly, 64 have so far declared a result. Here’s how things stand.
Sinn Féin has won 21 seats, and is on track to be the largest party overall. The Democratic Unionist party, previously the largest party in the assembly, currently has 18 seats, and will become the second largest.
The Alliance party currently has 13 seats, while the Ulster Unionists have six and the SDLP have four. The Traditional Unionist Voice has one seat, and former DUP member Alex Easton has been re-elected as an independent in North Down.
Get all the latest figures on our results page.
A good point from writer Ben Phillips. Sinn Féin’s victory in Northern Ireland is certainly significant, but it’s worth remembering that, under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, the first minister and deputy first minister are the joint heads of the regional government. The fact that the largest party gets to appoint the first minister is symbolic.
Our colleague Rory Carroll looks at what to expect in Northern Ireland in the coming days, given that the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, said he would not join a new administration until the UK government “dealt with” the protocol, the post-Brexit deal that puts a trade border in the Irish Sea.
That would paralyse Stormont, which would be run by a caretaker administration, and put pressure on the prime minister, Boris Johnson, to amend the protocol to end the stalemate. All sides expect the impasse to last weeks, possibly months, possibly culminating in a new election.
Read the full report here.
The BBC’s Jayne McCormack reflects on the outcome for the Green party in Northern Ireland.
Nicola Sturgeon has said that Sinn Féin’s performance in Northern Ireland has shown there are “big questions” around the future of the UK “as a political entity”.
Scotland’s first minister told PA Media:
If (Sinn Féin) emerge as the largest party today in Northern Ireland which looks very likely, that will be an extraordinary result and something that seemed impossible not that long ago.
There’s no doubt there are big fundamental questions being asked of the UK as a political entity right now.
They’re being asked here in Scotland, they’re being asked in Northern Ireland, they’re being asked in Wales and I think we’re going to see some fundamental changes to UK governance in the years to come and I am certain one of those changes is going to be Scottish independence.”
However, despite the changes she predicts, Sturgeon said all of the nations of the British Isles will continue to co-operate regardless.
Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland – we already sit around the British Irish Council table, and we will continue to do so, no matter whether Scotland is independent or not,” she said.
The British Isles is not going away and will continue to co-operate but, for Scotland, co-operating on the basis of equality as an independent country will be much, much better than the situation just now.”
PA Media reports:
The Alliance party has gained a seat in South Belfast as the Green party leader, Clare Bailey, lost out.
Sinn Fein’s Deirdre Hargey topped the poll in the constituency on Friday and was elected on the first count.
The late Christopher Stalford, who represented the constituency for the DUP before his sudden death earlier this year, was remembered during acceptance speeches.
Edwin Poots, who successfully reclaimed a seat in South Belfast for the DUP, tearfully dedicated his win to Stalford.
Poots previously represented the Lagan Valley constituency, but initially attempted to move to run in South Down before being asked by Stalford’s family to run in South Belfast following his sudden death early this year.
The SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole was the third MLA returned in South Belfast before the race narrowed to the two Alliance candidates, Paula Bradshaw and Kate Nicholl, Ulster Unionist candidate, Stephen McCarthy, and Bailey.
Bradshaw was elected on the seventh stage of the count, and her party colleague, Nicholl, joined her on the eighth stage.
Nicholl, who is the current Belfast lord mayor, is also the first Stormont MLA to have been born in Zimbabwe.
She said: “Our city is changing, diversity, and I really want to represent everyone in our city, to know they are valued, they are important and they matter.”
On the Northern Ireland elections, Lisa O’Carroll has put together a handy guide to what happens next.
The assembly must meet within eight days of the election, but it could be up to six months before.
It is expected to sit on Tuesday or Thursday next week.
The 90 elected members must then sign the register and declare whether they are unionist, nationalist or “other” under the power-sharing system in place.
Unlike Scotland or Wales or the UK national government – where the largest party can form a government – the Northern Ireland assembly requires a coalition of the two largest parties of different designations to form the devolved government.
It is a known as a “co-sociational” political system designed for countries with major internal divisions.
For more on this read her full report here.
The DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, insisted his party had done “extremely well” in the Stormont assembly election.
According to PA Media, Sir Jeffrey said unionism “has held its ground” as he arrived at the count at the Titanic Exhibition Centre.
The unionist vote remains strong, we are the largest designation in the assembly, I think there is a lot of spin around results and I’m very pleased with how the DUP has done in our constituencies.
We’ve held a remarkable number of seats where people were predicting all kinds of negative things, so we have strong foundations, we continue to build on them.”
Asked whether Northern Ireland will have a devolved government in 2022, Sir Jeffrey said: “Let’s cross all the bridges when we get to them.”
The DUP will refuse to take part in the executive until the protocol is reformed or replaced. This we know.
But what we don’t know yet is whether its leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, will force a byelection.
Yesterday he topped the polls in the Lagan Valley constituency in the assembly elections but double-jobbing as a member of the legislative assembly and an MP is banned.
He has one week to choose and is under pressure from fellow MLAs including former first minister Paul Givan to take up his seat in Stormont.
Keir Starmer has posted a video to social media in which he calls the local elections a “turning point for the Labour party”.
In the clip, Starmer is seen talking to a crowd of local party activists about the results, telling them: “We’ve shown we can win.
“That’s the change that collectively we’ve brought about in our Labour party, the trust that we’re rebuilding that’s putting us on the road to Number 10.”
Labour has so far gained 261 council seats across the country, though has made few gains in areas like the red wall that were key to the Conservative victory in 2019 and that Labour will need to regain if it stands any chance of forming a government after the next election.
Sinn Féin’s deputy leader, Michelle O’Neill, and the party’s president, Mary Lou McDonald, had been expected to make an appearance at the Meadowbank count centre in Magherafelt soon for the final declaration of the mid-Ulster seat, held by O’Neill, but have delayed the appearance because the count is taking longer than expected.
The official declaration is not now expected to be until the afternoon. When it comes, expect speeches and a rapturous reception from the Sinn Féin contingent in the hall.
Here’s what leading commentators are saying this morning about the Northern Ireland election.
Belfast Telegraph political editor and author Sam MacBride called the results “sobering” for unionism. He writes that it has not only lost far more support than nationalism, but that a “deep, structural problem has also been exposed” by the fact that even the more liberal pitch offered by the Ulster Unionist party failed to stem the losses.
Jon Tonge, professor of politics at Liverpool University, said that the “tumult was not utterly catastrophic for the [Democratic Unionist party], but the crown is lost”.
But Nationalist commentator Brian Feeney said “the shock of Sinn Féin’s massive victory has confirmed the worst fears” of unionists from the Democratic Unionist party and the Traditional Unionist Voice, namely that “the game is up for ethnic solidarity unionism”.
Positive local results for Labour and a strong showing for the Liberal Democrats have revived questions about whether parties of the left and centre should look at forming electoral pacts ahead of the next general election. But opinion within Labour remains divided.
Asked by the BBC’s PM programme on Friday whether the party was giving any thought to a progressive alliance, the shadow attorney general, Emily Thornberry, said: “We are going into the next general election wanting to win it and wanting to be the government, and being a government that has the majority of seats.
“We will have no deals going into that election and no deals coming out of it.”
But asked about the issue on the Today programme on Saturday, David Blunkett, a former home secretary and current member of the House of Lords, said Thornberry’s position was “premature and possible unwise”, adding that he “wouldn’t rule out some forms of informal pact at this stage”.
“You just need to look at the Conservative party,” he said. “They are a coalition of very different factions. The coalition of different factions on the centre and left are the Lib Dems, the Greens, and Labour, and to some extent Plaid Cymru in Wales. Let’s get real.”
The SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has refused to say if Sir Keir Starmer should resign as Labour leader if he is found to have broken lockdown rules.
It comes after police in Durham police announced they were investigating a possible lockdown-breaching gathering attended by Starmer while he was campaigning in the Hartlepool byelection last year. Starmer himself called for Boris Johnson to resign following a similar announcement by the Met in January about parties in Downing Street.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Blackford said it was too early to say what should happen to the Labour leader, but added there should be “sanctions” for anyone who breaks the law.
“There has to be sanctions for people who break the law, but we’re not talking about that yet – let’s wait and see what happens with that investigation,” he said.
“If there are issues for Keir Starmer to answer, then he should do so.”
He went on to say the Labour leader will have to “take his own actions, take his own consequences”, if found to have broken the law, but added: “The only man that’s been found guilty, as we sit here today, that is Boris Johnson.”