Tuesday 21 May 2019

It's back to square one, as North's strange political bedfellows prepare for tough reunion

DUP leader and former first minister Arlene Foster celebrates after being elected as the Northern Ireland Stormont election count takes place at Omagh Leisure Centre. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty
DUP leader and former first minister Arlene Foster celebrates after being elected as the Northern Ireland Stormont election count takes place at Omagh Leisure Centre. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

The big beasts in the Northern Irish political jungle remain the DUP and Sinn Féin, both somewhat red in tooth and claw after a bruising election, and both claiming victory. But neither of them wants to see Stormont fold, so it's game on for power-sharing negotiations.

Indeed, Gerry Adams chose to quote DUP founder Ian Paisley: "As Ian Paisley famously said to Martin McGuinness, 'we don't need Englishmen to govern us'." Meanwhile, there was a change of tone from Arlene Foster when she spoke of mending relationships. A return to direct rule is in the best interests of neither party, nor of the electorate, and the politicians know it.

So it's back to square one, the position occupied before the Assembly was collapsed: Sinn Féin and the DUP trying to find a compromise despite trust issues with each other. Politicians who offered an alternative perspective weren't alluring enough - the bulk of voters didn't bite.

There are some troubling conclusions to be drawn from this result. Nothing about it tells politicians to root out corruption or deal with incompetence. It suggests any behaviour is acceptable to the unionist community so long as the union is protected - the DUP banked on this, and played up to it during its campaign.

Very little about this result shows that people recognise cross-community support as the best way forward. The UUP's Mike Nesbitt tried to reach out, his behaviour showed someone trying to lead from the front, but his position looked increasingly shaky as the results filtered through and his resignation last night is unsurprising. Other unionists pilloried him. Easy to blame the parties for resisting cross-community support, but the electorate has to share responsibility.

Clearly, the prospect floated of moderate voices being heard has not materialised in a meaningful way. Not with Arlene Foster framing the election as a battle to save the union, while the question of a united Ireland bubbled away in the context of Brexit. It may take several more election cycles before moderates make progress.

Overall, the fundamental issues which led to the Stormont government's fall remain unresolved. Fixing them will take a commitment of time and effort - even as Brexit is looming. By rights, that's where energies should be focused.

Throughout the campaign, people insisted change was needed but the two-party result says something different. Maybe voters felt too much was at stake, because of the challenges posed by Brexit, to try the Opposition parties. They didn't see small groupings being able to deliver for them.

Any cheerful news from the result? Turnout was exceptionally high, which can be attributed to two factors: Arlene and Brexit. Voters arrived at polling stations in numbers not witnessed since the heady days of the Good Friday Agreement. Possible reasons include wanting to shore up Stormont for its participation in Brexit negotiations, and snapping back at the former first minister, who called her political rivals crocodiles. Some voters even turned up at polling stations in crocodile suits.

That turnout, nudging 65pc as opposed to last year's not-quite-55pc, is a measure of increased public interaction with the democratic process. And it takes hope to engage. Nevertheless, the result brings a sense of something volatile into the Northern air.

It's unclear, as yet, whether a possibility exists of patterns shifting just a little. But even the odd dent in the stasis - a 'move along' nudge - could be interpreted as a positive consequence.

Both of the larger parties will claim an invigorated mandate for their respective positions. But they also know, even before the dust settles, that they have one another to negotiate with. Some mutually face-saving fudge will be necessary as regards Mrs Foster, and I have no doubt it can be found.

People won't see a better government in operation as a consequence, but they may see one whose members are more respectful to one another; less inclined to score cheap points with name-calling. The spectre of direct rule, at a time when Westminster has little time or energy to spare for Northern Ireland, has brought about a sharpened realisation of how much everyone stands to lose.

But for power-sharing to work, it must be based on genuine cooperation for the common good rather than one side wresting or withholding concessions from the other. It has been a shame to see good ground dug in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement ploughed up all over again.

One of the criticisms levelled at the DUP is that it has felt itself to be untouchable - that certainty may now be somewhat shaken, even allowing for Mrs Foster only dropping 322 votes in her border constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Brexit should have had a major influence there but its impact was felt by her running mate Lord Morrow, DUP chairman - the loss of his seat is a setback for the party.

Mrs Foster is, of course, a highly visible local representative. But her personal popularity in the heartland aside, the DUP needs to weigh the disadvantages of allowing Mrs Foster to continue behaving in a divisive way towards the population at large. The Northern communities need leaders who are committed to reconciliation.

On Thursday, her DUP predecessor Peter Robinson had an article in the 'Belfast Telegraph' which reminded politicians of the Hippocratic oath, 'primum non nocere - first, do no harm'. I wonder if it was a warning to Mrs Foster? Certainly, she could use the cue.

To date, she has shown herself unable to reach out to all sectors of society - stunted in growth as a leader, unlike her forerunners. Leaders have an obligation to take the long view - she used sectarian rhetoric for short-term electoral advantage.

But be careful what you wish for. The DUP, once back in office, is facing into choppy waters amid growing uncertainty about their livelihoods from farmers and the business community.

Elsewhere, the battle within unionism has been an interesting element of the election. It appears as if Alliance has siphoned off votes which would once have been transferred between the DUP and UUP. Under a confident-looking Naomi Long, the party appears better placed than the UUP to challenge the DUP, but again, this will take time.

As for the SDLP, it failed to make an impact - hardly surprising, when few are clear about what it stands for. It's easier to understand what the DUP and Sinn Féin represent.

The North's democratic institutions were hard-won, and they must be put to work again. We must trust to that desperation for power, which grips politicians of all hues, pricking them into cutting a deal - that will be the main driver in the dialogue that's about to proceed.

Irish Independent

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