Sunday 22 September 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Same old, same old in Northern Ireland, where inertia has no repercussions at the ballot box and two sides are unwilling to take a chance on anything new'

'Obviously, Sinn Féin and the DUP must compromise if Stormont is to be restored. But this vote does not incentivise concessions'
'Obviously, Sinn Féin and the DUP must compromise if Stormont is to be restored. But this vote does not incentivise concessions'
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

The lesson from the North's local elections is unambiguous. It is that no matter what - if the flood waters are rising or the Last Trumpet is sounding - people there vote along tribal lines. That's just how it is. Depressing but true.

What could have signalled the potential for Armageddon more starkly than Brexit, with its threat to the open Border? But it made no difference - clearly, both Sinn Féin and the DUP read their electorates accurately because their voters haven't blamed them.

During the economic crash, Fianna Fáil was punished by the public and its recovery on the national stage has been slow. But there's been no backlash against either Sinn Féin or the DUP. No payback for the former's absence from Westminster, no payback for the latter pushing a hard Brexit agenda.

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From this, we can conclude something germane to the Good Friday Agreement. It delivered. But it fell short. Peace came but not reconciliation. Integration - of education and housing - was essential but slipped off the agenda.

In Britain, the local elections have delivered a frustration vote, a protest vote, an anti-stasis vote. The Brexit Backlash, it's called. Not so in Northern Ireland, where inertia has no repercussions.

Northern Ireland did not mirror the British trend, where the two dominant parties were punished for being unable to settle on a Brexit deal. The two largest parties in the North couldn't cut a much less complex agreement, to restore Stormont, but received no reprimand - perhaps because people are resigned to failure in the North.

In Britain, although the election was local, the issues were national. In Northern Ireland, everything stayed local. Consequently tribalism held its ground: for God and Ulster on one side, Our Day Will Come on the other. No Stormont Backlash then. No lending out your vote in hopes of sending a message to politicians.

A resurgent SDLP didn't materialise, despite the link-up with Fianna Fáil, which is looking like an increasingly bad idea. As for the UUP, its message simply hasn't connected and unionism is becoming interchangeable with the DUP. Peadar Tóibín's Aontú, a conservative religious party in its first electoral outing, hasn't made a significant impact on voters, which tells us people in the North are ahead of parties on social policy, as in the Republic.

Candidates had a better than one-in-two chance of getting elected in the locals because there are so many seats relative to the number of contenders. So if someone is left chosen, quite a strong message is being sent.

News that Bombardier was selling its Belfast operation broke as people went to the polls. The Canadian company is one of the region's largest employers with 3,600 working in plane-making activities; overall, some 12,000 jobs may be impacted because of the supply chain. In 2017, it was estimated the wages of the company's employees put £158m (€185m) into the local economy annually.

Bombardier had already indicated the DUP stance on Brexit was a worry. Subtext: why would it continue to invest in a place so dysfunctional a government couldn't even be set up? The company is for sale and we don't yet know if some or all of those jobs are safe. What we do know is there's no functioning Stormont to fight for them.

In the last local government elections in 2014, the DUP and Sinn Féin emerged as the two largest parties. Five years on, there is no alteration to that position. Same old, same old. The upsurge for change in the wake of Lyra McKee's killing has not carried through to the ballot box. How to interpret that? Perhaps it is that people want the parties they have always voted for to shift the dynamic, as opposed to taking a chance on anything new?

Last Sunday at Arbour Hill in Dublin, Micheál Martin said Northern Ireland had normalised the abnormal idea that the existence of a government is negotiable: "What they don't seem to understand is that, for democrats, a parliament is a place you go to solve problems - not a place you refuse to go unless your problems are sorted in advance."

This acts as a rebuke. Chiding others is easy. Understanding their position, helping them to move on from it - that's harder. Mr Martin's criticism overlooks the reality that, for most of Northern Ireland's existence, nationalist people there have not felt adequately represented in either Stormont or Westminster.

The Good Friday Agreement transformed that, but the DUP didn't sign up to it. Perhaps that is why neither of the two largest parties was taken to task by electorates for failing to reach agreement and return to Stormont. Those outside attach more weight to Stormont than those in the North, who question its effectiveness.

Obviously, Sinn Féin and the DUP must compromise if Stormont is to be restored. But this vote does not incentivise concessions. It is bound to hamper the talks process due to start next week. Punishment at the ballot box is language which politicians hear loud and clear but they have not been reprimanded - on the contrary, both are likely to feel they have been delivered stronger negotiating hands.

A spirit of cooperation needs to be fostered in the North. 'Ní neart go cur le chéile' - no strength without combination. That was the motto of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, founded by reforming landlord Horace Plunkett. This pioneer of the co-operative movement, who understood the importance of co-operation, was a unionist MP in the House of Commons and later a senator in Dáil Éireann. It is examples such as his which have to be invoked.

Unfortunately, the division between Sinn Féin and the DUP is not just political but social. Sinn Féin has evolved to become more socially liberal while the DUP remains conservative. Furthermore, Sinn Féin remains focused on a Border poll - and this will cause tensions within unionism.

Where are the moderates? They do exist but they aren't winning huge traction. Nevertheless, it was a good day for Alliance and the Greens. That represents some progress. Real progress, however, would be signalled by translating those gains into a European seat. One each is guaranteed for the DUP and Sinn Féin but seat number three is up for grabs. Could Alliance make a breakthrough?

Finally, let's look again at what happened in Britain. The Lib Dem tide is a reaction, not a trend. One Tory voter who switched told me he did it for the locals but wouldn't vote for them at national level. Two lifelong Labour voters who went Lib Dem said they did it to send a message that they want Brexit stopped.

British politicians are coming under pressure thanks to this election but their Northern counterparts aren't experiencing the same heat. Their voters aren't saying take Stormont out of cold storage, or else. Dublin and Westminster take note.

Irish Independent

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