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Century of unionist hegemony ends, but North is more divided than ever

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Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt, with his wife Lynda Bryans, after announcing his resignation when his party failed to make a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland Assembly election. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt, with his wife Lynda Bryans, after announcing his resignation when his party failed to make a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland Assembly election. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA

PA

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt, with his wife Lynda Bryans, after announcing his resignation when his party failed to make a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland Assembly election. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA

This is big stuff. Unionist parties have lost their absolute majority in a Northern Ireland parliament for the first time since the province's creation in 1921.

Sinn Féin came within 1,168 votes of becoming the most popular party across Northern Ireland for the first time ever. In practice both nationalists and unionists are neck and neck and, unsurprisingly, Gerry Adams and co are ramping up talk about Border polls as 'A Nation Once Again' plays in the background.

But before we all get ahead of ourselves here, let's note that some things are still the same. Or, things may have been made worse by Thursday's unwanted and bitterly divisive election to the Stormont assembly.

The North's "changed political landscape" is even more polarised than before. It all raises more doubt about whether Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) can relearn how to work together.

The unionist community is spooked - and that is not a helpful sentiment in any community. Much now depends on how Sinn Féin conduct themselves.

More immediately, nationalists and unionists have just three weeks to put a power-sharing administration back together. Around that time, British Prime Minister Theresa May will trigger the so-called Article 50 mechanism to start EU-UK divorce proceedings. It would be appalling to see that process, which will affect the North more than any other part of these islands, start without an executive in Belfast.

If there is no power-sharing government inside the three-week delay, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, is legally obliged to call fresh elections. Already, the North's first ever power-sharing government leader, David Trimble, has urged an extension of the time period.

This unwanted election came just 10 months after the last contest in May 2016. Turnout was 10pc up last week compared with last May, as two out of three voters turned out.

The catalyst for last week's election was the obdurate response of DUP leader and first minister Arlene Foster to controversy about runaway spending on a grant-aided renewable heating scheme. The reality was that relations were not good for some time between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin.

The immediate cause was Sinn Féin's demands that Ms Foster stand aside pending an investigation into the so-called 'cash-for-ash' scheme. The reality was that ongoing rows about things like legislation on the status of the Irish language in the North and Democratic Unionists blocking Sinn Féin's efforts to legalise same-sex marriage, did the real damage.

Mrs Foster, who took over as DUP leader in December 2015, and as first minister in January 2016, is now fighting for her political life. There were some ritual expressions of confidence by some of her party heavy-hitters in the immediate aftermath of the calamitous results.

But yesterday, DUP MP Gavin Robinson said that the party was not ruling out an ultimatum from Sinn Féin for Mrs Foster to step aside temporarily. Mr Robinson said it must be her decision - but the silence from the rest of the party in the ensuing hours was significant.

Mrs Foster's standing aside remains a Sinn Féin precondition to entering power-sharing talks. She had rightly predicted a "brutal election" - but she could not have predicted such a brutal outcome for someone who was rated as "electoral goldust" a year ago.

It is hard to see her surviving the coming storms and remarkable to ponder how steeply she has fallen in just 15 months.

But the bigger picture reality is that the bulk of power has been handed to the two parties who just recently could not operate together. It does not bode well.

More than ever before, a real working relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin is urgently required. Will Sinn Féin address its community's immediate need for effective government? Or, will it risk continuing its longer game?

And in case you doubt how things have not have changed, ponder the words of Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Mike Nesbitt as he announced his resignation.

Let's recall that the UUP and the SDLP tried first off to put power-sharing into action in the early years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, all the while being harried, and finally ousted by the more unyielding Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin. This time, two moderate parties had tried to push a cross-community vote transfer arrangement which achieved very little for either, but hit the UUP badly.

Mr Nesbitt said the failure of more reasonable middle-ground politicians to achieve any breakthrough showed the North was now more polarised than ever.

"Some day, Northern Ireland will vote as a normal democracy. We will vote in a post-sectarian election. But it is now clear that it will not happen during the duration of my political life," the departing UUP leader said.

Food for thought.

Irish Independent