An earthquake in Northern Ireland

My Protestant father passed away 16 years ago. I doubt he ever thought the day would come when Sinn Féin massively outpolled the Democratic Unionist party in Northern Ireland’s assembly election.

But here we are; a majority of Northern Ireland’s people has voted to have as first minister a republican whose party wants a united Ireland. Sinn Féin gained an astonishing 29% of first preference votes in Thursday’s assembly elections. The DUP got 21.3%, a drop of 6.7% on its last performance.

Northern Ireland was set up 101 years ago to be an exclusively unionist state. Now, and maybe this is even partly down to Brexit, Sinn Féin’s president, Mary Lou McDonald, has already said that preparations for a border poll should begin immediately and that it could be held within five years.

A party that does not want Northern Ireland to exist and refuses to even use the term Northern Ireland has become its biggest.

This election has simplified the political landscape, while also making it more interesting, not least because of the massive success of Alliance, which has emerged as the third largest party taking 13.5% of first preference votes and gaining numerous seats through transferred votes. It takes no position on the constitutional question and draws voters from unionist, nationalist and other backgrounds. Alliance used to be the party that “nice” unionists said they voted for when they didn’t want to admit they voted for the Reverend Ian Paisley. It has attracted a broad range of people, including many young people from the Protestant community who have rejected the DUP’s fundamentalism and intransigence.

The success of Alliance will ensure that Sinn Féin and the DUP, should they form an executive office together, must represent the interests of a diverse society.

Northern Ireland has had a transformative election. But do not expect rapid change.