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Stormont future clouded by uncertainty after Sinn Fein triumph

Sinn Fein became the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time after a historic electoral triumph.

While the Republican Party is entitled to the role of Prime Minister, uncertainty continues to hang over the future of Belfast’s devolved legislature.

Here are the answers to some of the questions about Stormont’s election outcome and the prospects for a return to power-sharing.

– Will Michelle O’Neill become Prime Minister?

She will certainly be entitled to the post, but it is quite possible that Sinn Fein will be prevented from taking up the post of Prime Minister, at least in the short to medium term, due to a lack of a willing partner in government.

Somewhat confusingly, there is no legal difference or power disparity between the Premier and Deputy Premier of Stormont – their equal status is the cornerstone of the region’s power-sharing structures.

Under current rules, the largest Unionist party takes one position and the largest Nationalist party takes the other, with the premiership going to whoever has the most seats.

The election result means that Sinn Fein, with 27 seats to the DUP’s 25, will be entitled to the role of Prime Minister and the DUP to that of Deputy Prime Minister.

Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald (left) and Vice President Michelle O’Neill (Liam McBurney/PA)

Most importantly, a properly functioning ministerial executive cannot be formed without both roles being fulfilled. One cannot be in office without the other.

The last ministerial executive imploded in February when the DUP withdrew its Prime Minister Paul Givan in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol, a post-Brexit trade deal that infuriated unionists by creating economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK.

Mr Givan’s resignation automatically removed Ms O’Neill from Deputy Prime Minister.

While Ms O’Neill has said she will be there on ‘day one’ ready to form a government when the new Assembly meets next week, the DUP has made it clear that it will not return to power-sharing until changes to the protocol would not have been secure. .

In this context, the actions of the UK government, either in collaboration with the EU or through unilateral action, will be essential.

It remains unclear whether any signal of intent from the government in the coming days will be enough for the DUP to agree to form a new executive.

2022 NI Assembly Election
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (Liam McBurney/PA)

– Is an immediate crisis looming?

A recent change to the law means the last executive, which operated in a shadow format after Mr Givan resigned, can drag on for six months without a first or deputy first minister in place.

Prior to this change, failure to appoint to these positions within a week of the Assembly’s return would have led to a large-scale breakdown of devolution and would have forced the UK government to call new elections.

With this buffer now in place and last-term departmental ministers able to continue in office (or their parties nominate a replacement), there is less immediate pressure to secure a political breakthrough in the coming days.

However, should the six months pass, the government would again assume the legal responsibility to call elections to the Assembly.

Some within the trade union movement urged the DUP to wait for this period and try their luck with the electorate again at the end of the year.

Unionist hardliners will also pressure the DUP to never be deputy prime minister of a Sinn Fein premier, regardless of action on protocol.

This view may well take party considerations into account, especially given the rise in support for the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party.

However, in recent days, some senior DUP officials have at least hinted that the party would be ready to take the post of deputy prime minister, if concessions on the protocol were made.

A defaced traffic sign welcoming motorists in Northern Ireland (Brian Lawless/PA)

– Is a united Ireland poll any closer?

While Sinn Fein no longer gained power by replacing the DUP as the largest party, the result is undoubtedly a symbolically significant moment in the post-Good Friday Agreement era.

A party that finally wants to see the end of the state called Northern Ireland has the right to be its prime minister.

But it should be stressed that Sinn Fein’s electoral gains do not necessarily translate into a sharp rise in support for reunification.

In fact, the overall nationalist vote (adding other parties such as the SDLP) has not increased and is still behind the overall unionist vote, although the gap has narrowed in recent years.

There are even more MPs in Stormont who call themselves trade unionists than those who call themselves nationalists.

What the result highlights is the growing influence of voters who present themselves neither as nationalists nor as unionists – this is evident in the continued electoral successes of the Cross-Community Alliance Party, which has more than doubled its number of seats in the elections.

With little difference between the size of the nationalist and unionist blocs, it is clear that the votes of the so-called “others” would be crucial if a referendum were to take place.

However, the responsibility for calling a vote lies entirely with the UK government.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, a ballot should be called if the secretary of state believes it seems likely that a majority would support a constitutional change.

There is very little additional information in the public domain as to what evidence the Secretary of State is obligated to rely on to inform this decision.

Election results will no doubt be a consideration.

While Sinn Fein will insist that its electoral success in recent days shows it is time to prepare for an election, unionists will point to the lack of an overall surge of nationalist sentiment to counter that claim.

Loyalists are opposed to the Northern Ireland protocol (Peter Morrison/PA)

– Will DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson remain an MP for long?

When Sir Jeffrey took the reins of the party last summer, he pledged to give up his long-held seat at Westminster and return to Stormont to lead the party from Belfast.

Despite the commitment, there remains uncertainty over his short-term future after he returned home leading in the Lagan Valley polls.

Much has changed since last summer, including the DUP’s decision to collapse the executive in February, and Sir Jeffrey has made clear his party will not revert to an administration with no movement on protocol.

To date, he has not confirmed whether he will actually assume his role as an MP.

An alternative strategy could see him co-opt a party colleague into the seat he just won to allow him to remain an MP until he is ready to reenter power-sharing.

Such a decision would no doubt be controversial.

Sir Jeffrey said he would clarify his intentions over the coming week.