‘Working together in the national interest’ is the phrase both David Cameron and Nick Clegg have used to describe the coalition government in Westminster. Indeed the Liberal Democrat leader has staked his party’s future on it and in particular the coalition’s ability to regenerate the UK economy. Whilst the Westminster coalition faces a potentially difficult rebuilding exercise following the results of the local elections and the AV referendum, the lead partners in the coalition government in Northern Ireland have proven that ‘working together in the national interest’ does not inevitably lead to a downturn in political fortunes.
Following a lengthy and much criticised election counting process, the two main governing parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, both increased their number of assembly members (MLAs). The DUP won two more seats to take their number of MLAs to 38, whilst Sinn Fein won one more seat to have 29 MLAs in the new assembly. For the DUP and their leader Peter Robinson, it was a sweet victory following the loss of his Westminster seat a year ago. Much of the talk before the election had been about whether the Unionist vote would split sharply, potentially allowing Sinn Fein to become the largest party for the first time and thereby making their leader Martin McGuinness First Minister. This did not happen, but it was overall a good night for the main nationalist party who outperformed their principle rivals.
For the Ulster Unionists (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) it was a disappointing night, with both parties losing two seats on their performance last time. Both parties had tried to position themselves as outsiders to the status quo, voting against the budget and attacking the ‘cosy’ relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein. However voters were seemingly not impressed by this positioning and both will now look to regroup. The Alliance party gained one seat and now has eight MLAs, six short of the SDLP on 14 and eight behind the UUP on 16.
Hopes that the campaign itself would be about the issues, such as education and health, rather than security issues were not fully realised, with the murder of catholic police officer Ronan Kerr overshadowing proceedings. However, in health, the abandonment of plans to build a radiotherapy centre in Londonderry and access to NICE approved cancer treatments for patients in Northern Ireland were both issues that attracted media and public interest during the election.
The Ulster Unionists defended their handling of health, and the draft 2011-15 health budget, criticising the other parties for not giving the department a better deal (it was one of the factors in them voting against the budget of the Executive). The draft health budget was explicit about the impact of the real terms reduction of 2% by 2014/15 in spending indicating that this could result in job losses, restricted access to community care, no ability to implement NICE guidance or put patients on new high cost drugs. The DUP and Sinn Fein argued that the Conservative led government in Westminster’s cuts programmes were to blame for this and effectively highlighted the alliance between the Ulster Unionists and the Conservatives at the last general election to put the pressure back on the UUP. This proved effective with UUP Health Minister Michael McGimpsey only holding his seat in South Belfast after a recount.
The next challenge for Northern Ireland politicians is to divide up the offices of state amongst the main political parties, this week. This proportional process is done using the D’Hondt system where parties are allocated ministerial positions based on their number of MLAs. Given the 2% reduction in the Northern Ireland health budget and the difficulties this will present, it may well be that parties seek to try and avoid the brief, seeing it as something of a poisoned chalice. There is certainly no doubt that whoever takes the reins faces a challenging period in office.