Sinn Féin grabbed the headlines, but the Alliance party made the biggest strides

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While Sinn Féin has rightly grabbed the headlines, the Northern Ireland election has also revealed that a growing part of the population is no longer looking for green or orange on the ballot.

The seismic shift in Northern politics – which saw Sinn Féin become the largest party and take over as Prime Minister – cannot be underestimated.

As Mary Lou McDonald said, the Northern Ireland created just over 100 years ago was one that was designed ‘precisely to prevent a Michelle O’Neill from ever being Prime Minister “.

The fact that 17 of Sinn Féin’s elected MPs are women also marks an important step on the road to balanced representation and an achievement that parties on this side of the border could learn from.

But it was the central ground represented by the Alliance Party that arguably made the greatest progress in the election, more than doubling its representation to 17 seats.

This compares to Sinn Féin, which remained stable, returning 27 seats, and the DUP, which lost three seats.

Alliance won two of five seats in the traditional Unionist stronghold of Strangford, with Kellie Armstrong and Nick Mathison (above) being elected. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA

This changing appetite for fresh, liberal and non-aligned representation, particularly among those who may have traditionally been seen as Unionist voters, has seen an increase in support for a party that is labeled neither Unionist nor Irish Nationalist, but as “other”, in the Assembly.

The move was particularly evident in North Antrim, once the political stronghold of Ian Paisley where, for the first time, a woman was elected.

By ousting incumbent DUP Mervyn Storey, who had been MLA for North Antrim since 2003, Patricia O’Lynn also became the first Alliance Party member to represent the constituency of Stormont.

“A new day is on the horizon in North Antrim. The age of law is over,” Ms O’Lynn said after taking her seat.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said Ms O’Lynn’s victory was a ‘breath of fresh air’, adding that the days of ‘stale, masculine and pale’ politics in the north of Antrim was over.

The Alliance Party was founded in 1970 by a group of 16 people who decided that a new cross-community party was needed to work on healing communal divisions in Northern Ireland and to represent those with a liberal approach to social issues and economic.

Since then the party has hovered around 9% support taking a few swings along the way, notably in 2003 when it only managed to claim 3.7% in the Assembly elections.

Claiming nine seats, including two seats in six constituencies, it jumped two positions to become Stormont’s third largest party with 13.5% of the overall vote share.

Newly elected MP Kate Nicholl with her husband Fergal Sherry and Alliance party supporters at the Titanic Exhibition Centre.  Photo: PA
Newly elected MP Kate Nicholl with her husband Fergal Sherry and Alliance party supporters at the Titanic Exhibition Centre. Photo: PA

However, politics in Northern Ireland was never black and white and the success of the Alliance Party drove out what were seen as other centrist representatives, including Clare Bailey of the Green Party.

The SDLP also lost half of its representatives and has only four seats left in the Assembly. Whether this was partly because some SDLP supporters lent their vote to Sinn Féin in a bid to push Ms O’Neill’s members over the line to get the premiership, will only be seen only in the next elections.

Likewise, it will take a new election to determine whether the massive jump in support for the Alliance party is just a temporary rebound, or whether it represents a real and lasting shift in politics in Northern Ireland away from it. an electorate that votes along sectarian lines.

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