Saturday 24 August 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'A gay councillor for DUP might look like progress but Northern Ireland is still a political basketcase'

Alison Bennington. Photo: PA
Alison Bennington. Photo: PA
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

In normal times, under stable conditions, few people would pay much attention to the local council elections in Northern Ireland.

But these aren't normal times and, since the collapse of Stormont, conditions haven't been stable in the North for more than two years.

Following the murder of Lyra McKee last month it seemed as if the North had finally reached some sort of catalyst.

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In a society where shocking murders were once so frequent that they simply ceased to be shocking, her shooting was a grim reminder of just how quickly the ghosts of the past can come back to haunt us.

The tragedy of the North is that it so often takes an atrocity to concentrate people's minds.

But McKee's murder seemed to herald a heartfelt revulsion that was far more sincere than the usual condemnation-by-rote that had been a depressingly predictable feature of the past. The fact that she was killed just before the local elections offered voters a chance to make their voice heard in the only place it really matters - the polling booth.

Last week's vote was the first time in two decades that the local elections were held on their own and there were fears that would result in a smaller turnout.

But the turnout was steady and it certainly threw up some interesting results that should give peace-loving democrats on all sides a measure of comfort, if not necessarily cause for celebration.

Sinn Féin has endured a rough time under Mary Lou McDonald's stewardship and the fact that it remained hovering around the 23pc mark, a slight downturn on the last election five years ago, would seem to suggest two things - that it has managed to weather the storms that have impacted its rivals or, on the other hand, the result is an indication that it has gone as far as it can under its current leader.

The DUP was the biggest loser, which will be a source of despair for nobody.

In fact, two individual DUP results could indicate that the most intransigent party in these islands will have to move with the times or the times will simply leave them behind.

Readers may recall the minor spat between Rihanna and DUP councillor Alan Graham a few years ago when Graham objected to the singer shooting a risqué video on his farmland.

Exclaiming at the time that "young ladies shouldn't have to take their clothes off to entertain", he was the very epitome of the traditional DUP.

He lost his seat, while his party's newest and most intriguing councillor is surely Alison Bennington, who was elected to the Antrim and Newtonabbey council.

Bennington is gay, which would normally fail to raise much of an eyebrow. But the fact that she represents a party for whom gay marriage remains a major sticking point, both spiritually and politically, is a sign of these confusing times.

If outsiders were baffled that she would join a party where many of her colleagues are strictly observant Presbyterians who sincerely think she is going to hell, many party members were livid at her inclusion at all.

Indeed, Arlene Foster has already had to slap down some of her subordinates who seem to think that Bennington's victory represents the End Of Days.

But maybe things are really as bad for the DUP as some of its members seem to think, even if for reasons other than merely having an openly gay representative.

Graham the grumpy farmer lost his seat to the Alliance party, which has emerged from Thursday's poll as the real winner in most people's eyes. That should be cause for optimism for many of us on both sides of the Border.

Now the largest non-sectarian party in Northern Ireland, the Alliance party, has increased its representation from the 32 council seats it won five years ago to a healthier 53 seats and it will hold an interesting balance of power in this week's council talks.

Some of its gains were extremely noteworthy and the fact that in one constituency, Holywood, the Alliance and the Greens took the first three seats is hopefully a sign that voters are becoming more mature and less entrenched, even if the politicians from the bigger parties have yet to catch up with them.

Yet despite some truly interesting results - really, when you think about it, the DUP having a gay councillor is more like something from a TV satire - and indications that electoral patterns in the North may finally be inching towards some semblance of normality, the DUP and Sinn Féin remain the two largest parties.

As long as they seem more intent on wounding each other than helping their people, it's hard to see how real change can take place.

The news that 4,000 jobs are now under threat at one of the North's largest employers, Bombardier, is sufficient reason for most ordinary people to want to get the leaders in the same room and smack their heads together. Most voters don't care about gay marriage or the Irish language as much as they care about jobs and stability. But the harsh fact is that as long as Stormont remains locked down, the six counties are doomed.

With Brexit fever occupying the minds of businesses, nobody is going to invest in a statelet which doesn't even have a functioning government.

It should be a source of profound embarrassment, even dishonour, to the politicians involved that now, at an era- defining moment for these islands, Northern Ireland looks more of a basket case than it usually does.

What hope is there for foreign direct investment when all outsiders see is that there is no government and journalists are being killed on the streets?

Therein lies the intractable nature of Northern politics - both Sinn Féin and the DUP are desperately searching for their own Holy Grail; Holy Grails which are mutually exclusive.

The Good Friday Agreement was meant to usher in a new era of consent and dialogue between the tribes, but when one of them defines itself around a United Ireland, while the other defines itself by staying in the UK, it's hard to see where there can be room for compromise.

Despite the encouraging signs that a new generation of voters are moving beyond the old paradigms and becoming more progressive, the North simply does not have a viable future as long as they are without a government.

The Tories only ever seem to make matters worse, and the appointment of the clueless Karen Bradley as NI Secretary was proof that they know little and care even less.

The time for messing around has long passed - they need a neutral third party to host negotiations and broker some sort of workable deal.

Oh, to have another George Mitchell on the horizon.

Irish Independent

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