An election is a way of telling whether the powers that be are the powers they ought to be, because how they react to the message from voters is instructive.
Are they led by the people, or do they go their own merry way? And so to another imminent Stormont election, due to be announced in weeks, when the most put-upon electorate in Western Europe will be invited to go to the polls again.
Usually, any opportunity to cast ballots is a worthwhile exercise because it is democracy in action. But when an election result is set aside, and another one is called in the hopes of a different outcome, the powers that be aren’t all they ought to be.
The Northern Irish electorate is facing into another Assembly election before Christmas: one which many people don’t want, having voted just last May.
The British government doesn’t want an election in the region, and is trying its best to avoid one, but it is obliged to call another by the end of October if Stormont remains frozen.
Late November or early December seem the likeliest times for polling.
It is questionable if the DUP wants an election – will it really win a stronger showing? – but the party is forcing one because it has backed itself into a corner with its wrathful, “no surrender, no protocol” message.
Jeffrey Donaldson’s grouping has created a demographic fattened on anti-protocol rhetoric, and cannot now easily reverse from that position.
Even if some in the DUP realise they should enter Stormont – on the basis Northern Ireland must be seen to work for all or it becomes a pointless polity – the party is too embedded in its protocol-is-evil bluster.
Local council elections are due next May, and seats risk being lost by the dozen if the DUP executes a volte-face after shunning the Assembly for most of this year.
The DUP has trundled its supporters into a place where they are convinced there can be no return to power-sharing until the protocol is abandoned or eviscerated. It has persuaded this sector of society that the protocol will hoodwink them into a united Ireland without their consent.
And since the Liz Truss government has abandoned its diversionary tactics and is no longer spoiling for a fight with the EU – instead making placatory noises towards both Brussels and Dublin – the DUP is between a rock and a hard place. Not for the first time.
If the party has been throwing tantrums over the protocol, just wait for the shrieks from its ranks over the European Court of Justice’s role in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, the ability of any party to veto Stormont sitting has to go. That provision was established as a protection mechanism but its unintended consequences are harmful.
And so to the Ireland’s Future “Together We Can” event at the 3Arena last Saturday, where the Tánaiste made a nuanced address in which he put forward a possible model of how sovereignty could be transferred from London to Dublin.
It might not suit everyone, but Leo Varadkar’s idea was creative, and best taken in the context of a post-referendum transition phase.
After all, if new constitutional arrangements are introduced by the will of the people, then a changeover period will be required. His suggestion could also be interpreted as an appeal both to the middle ground and moderate unionism.
“Northern Ireland could continue with a devolved parliament, with cross-community power-sharing, its own courts, education system, police and health service,” Varadkar said.
“We could continue to have north-south bodies and east-west co-operation. We could strengthen and deepen both these strands… Some might see that as no change, but the biggest change would be the most important one: the sovereign government would be the Irish one.”
The significance of this intervention cannot be overstated. As for telling people they will have to compromise, that can be unpopular but it is always necessary – full disclosure: I helped to organise the event as a board member of Ireland’s Future, a non-politically aligned group of volunteers from Northern Ireland and the Republic, drawn from various walks of life.
Those in Northern Ireland who seek change don’t want the same education system, justice structures, and so on. They’d prefer alternatives which deliver improved outcomes for themselves and their families.
However, as Varadkar indicated in his speech, a stepping-stone rather than big-bang approach to change can carry greater numbers along in the same direction. “And we need to remember that the next step doesn’t have to be the final word,” he said.
Furthermore, if sovereignty switched to Dublin, as envisaged in his speech, the momentum for change delivery in health, education, and other areas can press ahead.
The power to bring it about would rest with Kildare Street rather than Westminster. That sovereignty transfer is the key element, even if Stormont continues as a devolved entity for a time. Sequencing is pivotal here.
It was important to hear the next Taoiseach articulate those thoughts about unity, even as British politicians have begun referencing possible constitutional change.
Britain’s Labour Party has indicated it will call a Border poll if conditions are met. Norman Tebbit, a close ally of Margaret Thatcher, and whose wife had to use a wheelchair after the 1984 Brighton bomb, said recently: “It looks more likely than not that in the not-too-distant future, the province will become part of the Republic.”
The Ireland’s Future event attracted an audience of 5,000, including many young people, to hear political and civic leaders, cultural unionists and others discuss new political arrangements on the island.
Actor James Nesbitt, visibly nervous before going onstage, was a star performer as he outlined his background in a flute band, his Irish and British passports, and hopes for “a union of Ireland” – more of that useful, nuanced language.
“I would describe myself as an Irishman, from the north of Ireland, who in no way refutes or shies away from my Protestant culture. But it does not define me,” he said.
Nesbitt’s personal story is appealing because it makes a case for hybridity in identity and loyalties, while there was pragmatism and clear-sightedness in his words, too.
As for Varadkar, the takeaway message from his contribution was just as subtly made – in his case, about the transfer of sovereignty and how to make it unthreatening.
All told, there is reason to feel hopeful about the future of this island.