A range of people give their thoughts on this week’s election and what the future holds
By the weekend we will know the result of the Assembly election —billed as one of the most historic and significant polls in decades.
Sinn Fein — if opinion polls are correct — are expected to win the most seats on Thursday , making Michelle O’Neill the first nationalist to hold the post of head of government since Northern Ireland was created just over a century ago.
With the post of First and deputy First Minister joint roles, it grants Sinn Fein no more power than whoever is elected second to serve alongside them, but what does it mean symbolically?
Stacey Graham is a loyalist community worker, born and raised on the Shankill Road in Belfast. She is passionate about preserving the union and proud of her loyalist roots that date back to the Ulster Covenant.
What would a republican serving in that top post mean to the place she calls home? A place where the symbols of loyalist identity adorn every gable wall and lamppost in the flags and murals associated with the stanchly unionist working-class area.
“The First and deputy First Minister is a joint post, one can’t do something without the other, but this is about the symbolism of it — people are concerned about that one upmanship,” she says.
“Last year when we weren’t as close to an election, a lot of people in these communities were saying ‘we don’t give a s*** if there’s a Sinn Fein First Minister’. What they care about is these communities thriving and us being represented in the right way by the right people.
“You think the politics of fear is long gone but as you get closer to an election, whenever it becomes a very real possibility, you see that polarisation again and people going back into their own camps.
“It could be massively destabilising, but I think unionism and loyalism need to take some responsibility as well, I think we are guilty of having that inward look and not trying to sell the benefits of the union.
“When you go into places like the Shankill or east Belfast where your identity, your unionist identity, is all you have, you will do absolutely anything to retain that.
“If you are living in poverty and deprivation, if you have that sense of hopelessness, your culture and identity are everything.
“I feel like we are on the precipice here of something that could be really volatile.
“This peace agreement was supposed to bring prosperity to Northern Ireland, but the communities that were worst impacted by the conflict have not seen any sort of prosperity. So that feeds into that sense of isolation and if you are backed into a corner, what do you do?”
Dr David McCann is a lecturer and nationalist commentator. He urges caution, saying people should not to jump ahead of themselves.
“It’s not nailed on that Sinn Fein will be the largest party, the DUP are still competitive, so it is not a cert. If you take a look, they have more marginal vulnerable seats than the DUP do going into this election.
“But all that said, if they hold on in places like north and west Belfast, then they are on track to be the largest party”.
The First Minister and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland are the joint heads of government here and have overall responsibility for the running of The Executive Office.
Despite the different titles for the two offices, the two positions are equal — the deputy First Minister is not subordinate to the First Minister. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, they were nominated by members of the Assembly by a cross-community vote.
However, following the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, it was changed to the First Minister being nominated by the largest party overall, and the deputy First Minister nominated by the party in the next largest community designation.
Dr McCann says while a Sinn Fein First Minister is “hugely symbolic”, that symbolism is the only thing that comes from holding the post.
“The only change is that Michelle O’Neill gets to meet the Queen first, the First Minister gets to greet visiting dignitaries,” he added.
“Apart from that Michelle gets no more power the day after the election than she had as deputy First Minister.
“But the symbolism is huge, going right the way back to 1921. The person who has always been designated as either Prime Minister or First Minister has always come from the unionist side of the fence.
“So, in 101 years it will be the first time that a non-unionist has ever held the post of First Minister or Prime Minister.
“The bigger symbolism is if Michelle O’Neill is First Minister but also that there are more nationalists in the Assembly than unionists.
“From 2016 you had Brexit and then unionists lost their majority, then there was the Protocol, so you see indignity piled up on top of indignity and that just feeds that sense of retreat of the unionist force.”
Dr McCann urges caution from Sinn Fein though in terms of how they react to taking the post, should that be the case after Thursday’s poll.
“Nationalists will have to think, can they get progress on issues. Actions breed reactions and we saw that in 2017 when Arlene Foster thought she was being clever taking a strong stance against an Irish Language Act, well that had a reaction on the other side.
“They need to be careful that they don’t do something that fuels that resurgence within unionism or this idea that they can’t work with others. Don’t forget if nationalists are going to get a border poll, they need to win over parties like the Greens and Alliance.”
Professor Pete Shirlow is the Director of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, and the joint author of Who Are ‘The People’? A study of the broad identity of Ulster Loyalism.
He says the “bigger question” is why, if unionism has an “electoral weight”, are the DUP likely to end up second?
“Between 2017 and 2019 what we’ve observed is many people who would have voted DUP but are socially liberal have moved to the Alliance Party,” he said.
“Why did the DUP not chase after those people instead of chasing after those who are angry at the Protocol?
“There is not going to be a united Ireland tomorrow, or even in the short or medium term.
“For me it is how does unionism respond to being second, because it is not going to restore itself to first place by chasing after a traditional unionist vote because it is simply not there anymore.
“The capacity to do the things they used to do, bringing people onto the street, mass rallies etc — that’s wimperish at this stage. It does not have that power and capacity it once had.
“Most people are pro-union, happy with the status quo, happy to get on with their lives.
“They don’t want people on the streets, they don’t want politics that is all about anger, identity, and frustration.
“I think what it really will do is send a message to the DUP that they can’t survive by chasing a traditional unionist vote. They can only survive by being relevant to the pro-union community.”
John McCallister, a former Ulster Unionist MLA and a founding member of the failed NI21 experiment, said it should bring about a period of unionist self reflection.
“I think if it is going to happen, we just need to get it over and done with,” he says of the possibility of a Sinn Fein First Minister.
“Unionism has been in a tailspin, most of it of its own making.
“Campaigning for Brexit, voting for Brexit, getting in a Confidence and Supply agreement and bringing down Theresa May for Boris Johnson and then wondering why things are going badly.
“It will be purely symbolic, it may be important to nationalists, but it was a mistake by Doug Beattie not to kill that off at the start of his leadership.
“You need to build people up to this and give them time.
“It is a joint office, equal, co-joined, co-everything. I don’t see it being a problem, but unionism will make it a problem.”
Mr McCallister recalls how, in July 2010 during the UUP leadership election, there was a meeting in Newcastle Orange Hall. A question came from the floor about would he serve as deputy First Minister.
“I said at that time I would,” he recalls. “Two reasons: One, it is fundamentally undemocratic, we’d spend years saying we should respect people’s mandate and rights, and two because it is a totally joint office.
“I remember Tom Elliot was stunned that the vast majority of the South Down membership were supportive of that viewpoint.
“We were meeting in an Orange Hall, it certainly wasn’t a bastion of liberalism.
“I was in favour of changing it to the Office of the First Ministers, but the UUP at the time was still going back to 1998 — the largest designation.
“By 2017 there was one seat between the largest party and second largest.
“To me the entire thing is just mad to get caught up on.”