Middle ground has landed in the Alliance Party’s lap and it should be the first to remove the hottest potato on the menu from the daily discourse
None of us should get too excited about the results of Thursday’s elections in Northern Ireland. They were a big win for Sinn Féin, a huge breakthrough for the Alliance Party and yet another kick in the teeth for moderates in both nationalist and unionist camps. Yet despite some u nionists’ best efforts to endanger it, the union is not in play. Despite Sinn Féin’s triumph, a united Ireland is not around the corner. The election was meant to sort out the intractable protocol problem. It has added a new one rather than solved an old one.
The celebrations of Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party will last less than 24 hours. Tomorrow, when the leaders meet, an even more fundamental difficulty faces them: who will be Northern Ireland’s first minister? They will have two mountains to climb instead of one. The word “historic” was being freely hurled around the count in the Titanic Exhibition Centre by the winners in Belfast on Friday and by their cheerleaders in the media yesterday. Perhaps, but tomorrow, or on Thursday when the new Assembly attempts to elect a speaker, winners and losers will launch the familiar stumble to stalemate.
Sinn Féin’s success, of course, has given it the right to nominate Mich-elle O’Neill as first minister.
The DUP can nominate its leader as her deputy. Hell will freeze over first. While Jeffrey Donaldson has avoided giving an outright refusal to accept the nominally junior but in reality equal role, he will be demanding the end of the protocol as a prerequisite to any softer line from him on the top job. That alone should guarantee another six months of stalemate at Stormont.
We have been here half-a-dozen times before. The swapping in roles, with Sinn Féin taking the first minister’s job hitherto held by a unionist, is hugely symbolic but hardly historic. It is meaningless in terms of who wields the most political clout in Northern Ireland because the power of both offices is equal. However, the sight of Michelle taking token, but visible, precedence over Jeffrey at all those important events attended by ministers would send a shudder through the unionist community’s stomach. No unionist leader could survive being the first ever sidekick of a republican.
Alliance leader Naomi Long’s win was welcome, well-flagged and indeed historic for a party that has laboured so long for non-sectarian politics. Yet it comes at a cost. She appears to have cannibalised much of the moderate vote from the two less hard-line voices of nationalism and unionism.
The losers in the middle ground were the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). It is hard to credit that the man who performed far the best in the television debate last week, the palpably able and sincerely non-sectarian nationalist leader Colum Eastwood, came out a loser in this contest.
Eastwood has a brilliant team, including Westminster MP Claire Hanna and his deputy and Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon. When I was in the transport portfolio in the last government, I had many dealings with Mallon. She was efficient and constructive. Where there were cross-Border problems, she sought solutions. She was the highest-profile casualty of moderate nationalists. She will be missed.
The UUP has suffered a similar squeeze. Its poor leader, Doug Beattie, has had a bad run. His leadership of the UUP has been under a cloud since his misogynistic views, held when he soldiered in Afghanistan, were unearthed. It is difficult to persuade a sceptical electorate that you are a born-again liberal after that. On RTÉ’s Friday night Late Debate, columnist, Alex Kane, pronounced the death of the UUP.
The Greens too are casualties of the Alliance surge, losing two seats to Long’s party.
So the middle ground has landed in Alliance’s lap. We now have three minorities — unionism, nationalism and “the unaligned”, dominated by Alliance.
The result is that current Stormont structures, specifically designed to recognise unionist and nationalist interests in the formation of an Executive, will need to be reformed to recognise the new realities. The Alliance Party will probably insist on this. The next step is to change the Belfast Agreement to accommodate the existence of a Third Force. More
fundamental is Sinn Féin’s demand for a Border poll and the opposition of the DUP and others. Long’s position on this appears to be one of detachment, as she believes there are more immediate problems to be addressed, such as health and social welfare, the cost of living, a focus on problems that cross the political divide. It worked for her in the election.
She could surely do us all a favour by coming off the fence on the demand for a Border poll. There is a good case for a plebiscite on the continued existence of Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin has a point. She could come down on the side of the republicans on this issue. Take it off the table. She need not support a united Ireland, just a democratic decision on its desirability.
There were signs during the election campaign that Sinn Féin was attempting to downgrade the Border poll, to delay it. On Friday evening, Mary Lou McDonald appeared to suggest it is years away yet. Sometimes it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Sinn Féin might perform better with a frustrated crusade than a major policy completed or democratically defeated.
Perhaps Secretary of State Brandon Lewis should call the party’s bluff. There is no certainty that a Border poll would usher in a united Ireland — far from it, in fact.
Perhaps unionists, nationalists and the Alliance should now agree the best way out of the impasse is not endless negotiations but a Border poll in the coming months.
If Northern Ireland’s politicians are going to spend the next five years fighting about the need and the timing of a poll, the same sterile nationalist versus unionist battle will continue to dominate the agenda.
The Alliance Party, the refreshingly enlarged force in Northern politics, should be the first to remove the hottest potato on the menu from the daily discourse. Even the Traditional Unionist Voice, which increased its vote from less than 1pc to 8pc, should welcome it. The union should be put into play. A Border poll would be truly historic.