Looking ahead to the 2022 NI Assembly election

Looking ahead to the 2022 NI Assembly election

By Marek Zemanik – Senior Public Policy Adviser. 


It has been a tumultuous five years in Northern Ireland. The first three of these were marked by the collapse of the Assembly amid disagreements over power-sharing and policy. Then, like in the rest of the UK, the last two years have been engulfed by the pandemic. In Northern Ireland, however, Covid arrived just as businesses and employees were grappling with the changes resulting from the UK’s departure from the European Union and the application of the NI Protocol in particular. If the last few weeks have shown us anything, it is that neither of these issues have been resolved.

It was also almost exactly five years ago that the last NI Assembly election was held. The next one is currently planned for May 2022, although it could still be held earlier. The events of the last few years mean that it will be held under an unprecedented cloud of uncertainty, even in the context of Northern Irish politics. This blog hopes to give a short preview of what the election is about, some of the issues that are likely to crop up and  a flavour of our own CIPD priorities.

Politics and policy

One way of noticing there is a looming election is the increasing number of negative headlines following old social media posts being dredged out. Political campaigns heat up and get more personal the closer an election gets, and Northern Ireland is no exception. We still have a few months of this to go.

Where the Assembly is different though, is in its voting system. 90 MLAs are elected using the single transferrable vote system, which results in a more proportionate distribution of seats compared with first-past-the-post systems. The current Assembly has MLAs from eight different political parties, with four more independent MLAs and the Speaker. Under power-sharing arrangements, the Executive is made up from five different parties, with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister posts held by the DUP (unionist) and Sinn Fein (nationalist) respectively.

Given the events of the last five years, it is unsurprising to see opinion polling fluctuating. The voting system makes predictions more difficult, with national swings masking constituency differences, but there are a few big questions that hang over this election. First and foremost, we don’t know who the largest party will be.

The DUP, the largest party after each election since 2003, has had a difficult few years, especially regarding the NI Protocol and recent leadership changes. Opinion polls reflect that and it is very possible that the nationalist Sinn Fein will return the largest number of MLAs for the first time. The DUP (as well as the UUP) are refusing to speculate on whether they would support a Sinn Feinn First Minister, so whether an Executive could even be formed under these circumstances is unclear at the moment.

Similarly uncertain is the performance of some of the other parties that have seen their fortunes change since the last election. Opinion polls suggest a general move away from the two biggest parties, but voter behaviour on polling day can be more traditional than answers to polling companies. The Alliance – explicitly trying to move beyond the nationalist/unionist designation – will be hoping for gains, with the UUP and TUV hoping to benefit from the DUP’s wobbles.

The issue of the NI Protocol has dominated the political narrative and is likely to do so for some time to come. Despite ongoing talks, there does not seem to be any sign of a resolution and so cross-channel trade continues to face additional burdens. The DUP has threatened to collapse power-sharing over the issue, making an already unstable political situation even more precarious.

The Protocol is of course linked to broader economic challenges, many of which predate the pandemic. Not least productivity, where Northern Ireland performs the worst out of all nations and regions of the UK, with the UK as a whole lagging well behind our competitors. Aiming to tackle some of this is a new economic strategy, underpinned by a new skills strategy – both of which contain a range of ambitious proposals that will require cooperation, prioritisation and focus.

Health policy has understandably shot to the top of the Executive’s agenda as a result of the pandemic, but many longer-term issues have only been highlighted by the additional pressures of the last two years. Staff shortages, especially in nursing and social care, alongside climbing waiting times are two examples of issues that are likely to be more prominent during the campaign and beyond.

We have also seen some wrangling over climate change policy, with two competing Bills making their way through the Assembly, as well as Irish language legislation disagreements that again nearly derailed power-sharing last year. Both are likely to feature in the campaign over the coming weeks.

CIPD priorities

The 2022 NI Assembly Election will be the very first time the CIPD publishes our own manifesto collating our public policy asks across areas that Stormont is responsible for. The policy asks were pulled together following a series of roundtables we held late last year with senior members from a range of sectors, industries and organisational sizes, as well as several online surveys distributed to members of our Policy Forum. We focus on three areas that impact the work of our members – job quality, skills and employment law.

In the first chapter, we argue that job quality should be at the heart of public policy as we emerge from the pandemic. The Executive should press ahead with its plans for the Better Jobs Pledge and do whatever it can to promote awareness and adoption of good work practices across businesses large and small. Improving management skills to boost demand for training and improve productivity is key.

In the second chapter, we argue that the published Skills Strategy is a great first step and provide some suggestions for further progress. Central to our proposals is the rebalancing of funding towards vocational, work-based skills development and lifelong learning. This should include an enhanced Individual Learning Account model that is buildable, flexible and responsive.

In the third chapter, we make the case for a new Northern Ireland Employment Bill as a route to the consolidation of employment and equalities legislation that has – not always intentionally – diverged too far from GB law. We also want to see pay gap reporting requirements finally enacted as well as a range of policies to support those who face additional challenges to access employment and education opportunities.

We are planning to release the full manifesto in early March and there will be another blog with a bit more detail for you. Over the coming weeks, we will be taking these asks to all the political parties and hoping to move beyond the fractious politics towards some calm and constructive policy-making. After the upheaval of the last five years, we could all use a bit of that.