This will be the twentieth election held at regional level in Northern Ireland. The old Stormont House of Commons managed twelve elections between 1921 and 1969; we then had elections for an Assembly in 1973, a Constitutional Convention in 1975, another Assembly in 1982, a Forum in 1996, and this will be the fourth Assembly election since the Good Friday Agreement. It is, however, the first time since 1969 that we have voted for a devolved system of government that was actually operating at the time of the election.
At the same time, of course, we have the tenth and quite possibly the last elections for the 26 local government districts, which also go back to 1973. The 690 places to be filled by voters – 582 local councilors and 108 members of the Assembly – are a record for any one day since the 1970s reform of local government (I do not recall how many local councillors were elected before then).
In addition, voters will have a chance to participate in the UK-wide referendum on changing the voting system to the Alternative Vote, which would elect the House of Commons in single member constituencies using the same method as is used, in multi-member constituencies, for all other elections here. I’m not aware of any other occasion when the whole of Northern Ireland voted simultaneously on three different questions.
The last two Assembly elections, in 2003 and 2007, both saw pretty big shifts towards the DUP and Sinn Féin, and away from the formerly dominant SDLP and UUP. Those who believe in the swing of the electoral pendulum will expect that at some point the natural cycle of democracy will move voters in the other direction, and that at some point in the future the mantle of leadership within each section of the community will return to those who previously bore it. This, after all, is what we are used to from our neighbours: the alternation between Labour and Conservative in the UK, or between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the Republic.
I am not so sure that this will happen. It seems to me more likely that Northern Ireland’s politics is characterized by having dominant parties and challengers within each bloc of voters – nationalist, unionist, and cross-community – and that in fact it is the position of the challengers which is more vulnerable; in other words, in historical terms, I think it is the SDLP or UUP who are as likely to be replaced by different junior nationalist or unionist challengers than once again to overtake SF and the DUP. (It should also be said that the pendulum model is failing anyway; the current UK coalition slightly changes the picture there, and the collapse of Fianna Fáil earlier this year, makes their return as a dominant party seem doubtful.)
I feel that the 2011 Assembly election will be one of consolidation, not change. I admit that there is little to go on; no votes have been cast or counted in Northern Ireland since last year’s Westminster election (and a local council by-election held the same day). Opinion polls are notoriously unreliable. But there is no sense of welling dissatisfaction within the ranks of DUP or Sinn Féin supporters, or of swelling confidence from SDLP or UUP supporters, which will drastically upset the 2007 results. Perhaps there is an element of that from Alliance, which now has both a minister and an MP, which may enable a gain or two; and we also have challenges to the system both from Jim Allister’s TUV and from éirígí. There will be change of detail, of course – the passage of time and the new constituency boundaries make sure of that. But the big picture is likely to be pretty much the same when the new Assembly meets in mid-May. And stability is not necessarily a bad thing.