All was not doom and gloom prior to the 1998 stormont elections.
Local government, one of the biggest problems prior to the 1972 collapse of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, had indeed been 'fixed' in a major way. Starting in 1973, a series of elections were held that continue to the present day. Through the entire period, Northern Ireland, while lacking a government of it's own (at, what we in canada would consider a provincial level) did retain council-level governance (what we in would consider municipal-level)
These elections were held under proportional representation. The old first past the post, single-member wards were now merged into multi-member wards that would proportionally elect councillors, ensuring that gerrymandering could not be so simply used to disenfranchise catholics. The rules were also changed to allow all to vote, not just property owners, so long as they met the same criteria as voting in UK-wide elections (IE only over 18, etc) A map of these multi-member districts can be found here:
I fear these districts mapped may be slightly out of date, but, it does show demographics. Districts with an "irish" flag pattern and green background are those with nationalist majorities, while those with a "british" flag pattern, and an orange background, have unionist majorities; those with a "blank" pattern, and red background, have no clear majority. In the upper left is the constituencies used for UK-wide elections, while the upper-right contains the new council areas (IE municipalities) which were changed a short time ago.
The old areas, along with a colour-coded index of how "British" or "Irish" it's residents consider themselves, can be found on wikipedia:
1973 would see the the UUP take 17% of the vote, over 14% for the Alliance, 13% for the SDLP, and 4% for the DUP. SF did not contest these elections.
1977 saw the party vote solidify. The UUP took 30%, compared to 21% for the SDLP, 14% for the Alliance, and 13% for the DUP. SF again did not contest.
1981 saw the DUP win with 27% of the vote, and the UUP finish second with 26%. SDLP took 18% while the Alliance took 9%. SF did not contest, but an Irish Independence party did, taking 4%.
1985 saw the UUP regain first, winning 30% to the DUP's 24%. SDLP retained 18%, while SF came on to the scene with 12%. Alliance dropped to 7%.
1989 saw the UUP take 31%, and the SDLP finish in second with 21%. The DUP took 18%, and SF 11%, while the Alliance retained 7%.
1993 would see the UUP at 29%, ahead of the SDLP at 22%, and the DUP at 17%. SF managed 12%, and the Alliance returned managed 8%.
1997 had the UUP winning 28% of the vote, and the SDLP winning 21%. SF managed a third placed finish with 17% ahead of the DUP at 16%, and Alliance back at 7%.
the 1996 election to the consultative assembly was similar. 24.17% voted UUP, and 21.36% voted SDLP. The DUP managed third at 18.80%, ahead of SF with 15.47%, and the Alliance at 6.54%. Also winning seats was the UK Unionists, at 3.69%.
The UK Unionist Party (UKUP) were part of a long tradition going back to the 70's, of unionist parties who opposed power sharing. From 1972 to 1978, that party was the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party. It was founded by William Craig, who remained it's leader when the party dissolved. The modern Traditional Unionist Voice, founded by Jim Allister, is another.
4 other parties also joined, as the 1996 assembly gave 2 seats each to the top 10 parties, to ensure that the parties that represented the loyalist militias took part. As a result, the PUP won seats, as did the UDP, which represented the UDA terrorist organization. Also elected were the Labour Coalition, and the NI Women's Coalition (NIWC).
1998 would see each of the 18 westminster constituencies elect 6 members to the assembly using the single transferable vote.
The popular vote results were as follows:
However, in a system using STV, seats do not perfectly match the popular vote. Seats were as follows:
and 3 Independents (all unionists)
There were 3 reasons for this. Different turnouts in different parts of Northern Ireland meant that unionist seats saw fewer votes needed to elect a member. Additionally, the UUP proved better at politically using the STV system, not only balancing their candidates better so that they are not dropped early or stay in for too many rounds, but also being able to convince voters of other parties to rank them highly.
The next step would be to choose a First Minister and deputy First Minister. The GFA outlined that the largest party in the assembly, Unionist or Nationalist, would submit a nomination for First Minister, and the largest opposite party, for deputy First Minister. Thus the UUP, a Unionist party nominated David Trimble, and the SDLP, a Nationalist party, nominated Seamus Mallon. The two were then sworn in.
Next is picking the Executive. Parties are guaranteed a number of seats based on the number of seats they hold in the assembly. With all 4 qualifying parties deciding to participate, this meant 3 UUP members, 3 SDLP members, 2 SF members and 2 DUP members. The DUP, while participating in government, refused to attend meetings of the whole executive, due to the participation of SF. The DUP had accused the IRA of not disarming as agreed to.
Failure to disarm also caused suspension of the executive on for 3 month period in 2000, followed by short 24 hour suspensions in 2001 to deal with other issues. Finally, it was suspended in 2002 due to an alleged spy ring of the IRA operating in and around stormont, home of the assembly.
In late 2003 another election was held to return local rule to Northern Ireland. The DUP won with 30 seats on 25.7% of the vote. SF proved next most popular, winning 23.5% of the vote, but only 24 seats, behind the UUP at 27 seats, with 22.7% of the vote. The SDLP dropped to 18 seats on 17.0% of the vote, while the Alliance took 6 seats on 3.7% of the vote. 3 others also won seats.
The DUP refused to nominate a First Minister to sit with SF due their refusal to accept the PSNI as the new reformed police service in NI.
In 2007 another election took place. The DUP increased it's lead by taking 36 seats on 30.1% of the vote, while SF also increased it's lead by taking 28 seats on 26.2% of the vote. The UUP dropped to 18 seats, and 14.9% of the vote, behind the SDLP on 15.2% of the vote, and 16 seats. The Alliance managed 7 seats on 5.2% of the vote, while 3 others were elected.
Rather than fall into another period of direct rule from Westminster, the DUP and SF started negotiations. The parties came to an agreement. The DUP would enter into coalition and SF would accept the PSNI.
Gerry Adams of SF then nominated Martin McGuinness to be the deputy First Minister.
The DUP nominated Ian Paisley to be First Minister.
And with that, two men, who, 20 years prior were literally working to kill one another, decided that peace and democracy was the better way.
In 2010, powers of justice were returned to the assembly, and David Ford, leader of the Alliance, was asked to serve in the executive as Justice minister, he agreed.
2011 would see more stability. The DUP won 38 seats on 30.0% of the vote, while SF won 29 on 26.9%. The UUP won 16 seats, but again only took 13.2% of the vote, behind the SDLP at 14.2% and 14 seats. The Alliance took 8 seats, on 7.7% of the vote, while 3 others also won seats.
Ford would continue as Justice minister. This was a job nominated outside the normal procedure of assigning cabinet positions based on proportion of seats taken. As a result, the Alliance, with 8 seats, qualified for a seat chosen the 'normal' way, and had 2 members in the executive, despite both the SDLP and UUP only having 1. This was against 4 SF and 5 DUP members, when counting the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
During this period, the SDLP, UUP, and Alliance began to accuse SF and the DUP of being in cahoots; saying the two parties would agree on a position and then present that position to the executive as a united front. The 3 parties said this was against the spirit of the executive, and threatened to sit in opposition.
2016 would see the DUP hold at 38 seats, with 29.2% of the vote, compared to SF's 28 seats on 24.0%. The UUP would regain an undisputed 3rd place taking 16 seats on 12.6% of the vote, ahead of the SDLP with 12 seats on 12.0%, and the alliance with 8 seats on 7.0% of the vote. 5 others also won seats.
The number of positions in the executive was reduced. Despite qualifying, the UUP, SDLP, and Alliance all announced that they did not feel the DUP and SF would consult with the executive in the way they wished, and all 3 announced they were going into opposition. This left only SF and the DUP in the executive.
This left some concerned, as the Justice portfolio is a sensitive one. Both the DUP and SF agree that the other can not be left with full control over the department. As a result, an Independent member was approached to take on the role, and accepted, leaving 5 DUP, 4 SF, and 1 Independent members in the executive, if you count the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
This is where things stood when the RHI scandal hit. As I spelled out earlier, this has plunged NI into an election.
There are more issues beyond simply the ones listed. SF has felt the speaker of the assembly is biased towards the DUP, and both SF and the DUP have complained about things the other has done. With the UUP, SDLP, and Alliance all in opposition during the last assembly, it's possible that the next assembly will be unable to nominate a First Minister and deputy First Minister, and as a result, will fail.
It's also possible that the 5 main parties will sit down after the election and negotiate changes to the way Northern Ireland operates. They could get rid of the FM/dFM system, or amend it to allow for more flexibility. They could change how the executive works, and how you qualify for it.
All of this is currently up in the air and on the table. Where this goes is something we'll have to wait to see.