Assembly election: the old Stormont and King Solomon’s Mines

One of the first books I read myself as a child was King Solomon’s Mines by H Rider Haggard. It is a ridiculous (and at times racist – though less so than was typical of the times) colonial romp across a fictitious Africa. One image that always stuck with me was when one army (the bad “savages”) attacked the elite of the good army (“noble savages”). The baddies rise three times and fall back each time, defeated but leaving a smaller group of the goodies each time. Finally only a few goodies are left standing but the baddies are defeated. For years now this image has come to mind in terms of NI politics.

A long time ago now I wrote a blog about the parallels between the old and new Stormonts (annoyingly I cannot find it now). My basic thesis then was that in the halcyon days / nightmare past (delete as applicable – sorry I am only giving you a dichotomous choice) nationalists did not vote as much as unionists and that flattered the size of the unionist majority. A good illustration of this was that Viscount Brookeborough (peace be upon him / rot in hell – again delete as applicable) held the seat of Lisnaskea.

Wikipedia suggests the Lisnaskea seat had a unionist majority with a large nationalist minority. That may be correct but looking at its location and demography (it has not changed that much in the last 100 years) it would actually have been vulnerable to a concerted attempt by nationalists to get the vote out. That no real attempt was made to do so merely demonstrates what history tells us: Nationalists might have been far from happy being in “the north” but there was no real impetus to change that situation.

No one who reads slugger needs a Northern Ireland history lesson (we all know our views are correct – the facts are peripheral as well as highly interpretable). However, the reality is that there was no real concerted political attempt to destroy the state from its inception until the late 1960s. The Border Campaign of the IRA in the 1950s and 1960s was essentially a military / terrorist one and eschewed politics.

When the Troubles started (and unionists should remember the first murders were committed by loyalist grandfather thug Gusty Spence and his cronies) whatever the aim: it was not to overthrow the state via elections. The demise of the Old Stormont brought a nationalist majority no closer and the IRA’s 30 year long orgy of sectarian murder was not aimed at voting Northern Ireland into a united Ireland. Instead it was deliberately and consciously to overcome what republicans regarded as an artificially constructed majority and force a deal with the British government over the heads of the unionist community.

Gradually nationalism and republicanism became more politically powerful helped in large measure on the republican side by the Hunger Strikes. This was in part due to an increased Catholic percentage of the population but also increasing voting rates amongst the Catholic / nationalist population.

The IRA ceasefires marked the failure of the republican military project to overthrow the state (a fantasy which led Jim Lynagh and co to their dinner date with the SAS) or more realistically create a politically unacceptable security situation forcing the British government to surrender. As such that wave had crashed over unionism, had damaged it but ultimately failed.

In its place came a more realistic and although less violent and murderous, greater existential threat to the Northern Ireland state. The discussions and talks leading up to the Belfast Agreement looked to many unionists to be the managed process of producing a United Ireland with David Trimble cast as the FW de Klerk figure except with less political talent or personal charisma. In contrast the assorted anti Agreement unionists only appeared to offer an Ian Smith style Rhodesian last stand.

This dynamic of unionist despair and nationalist triumphalism resulted in falling unionist turnouts, increasing nationalist turnouts and the idea of “Liberty by 2016”. In the years either side of the millennium it seemed that quite soon no matter what the demographics in Catholic / Protestant terms there would be a continuous erosion of NI’s “Britishness”, then a nationalist majority and shortly thereafter an “Agreed Ireland” staging post to full unity. This time the angry waves rose almost to overflow the bark of unionism’s boat.

Exactly what has reversed this dynamic is complex: different people have different ideas and it is far greater in scope than a blog could address.

What has happened is that although there has been little or no rise in the unionist turnout or share of the vote there has been a continuous fall in the combined nationalist share of the vote. This has been happening for a number of elections now: too many to be dismissed as blips.

When the votes are all counted and the seats allocated the exact picture will emerge but currently it can be said that for the first time (apart from Kieran Deeney in West Tyrone over Omagh hospital) seats which traditionally would be nationalist have fallen to non aligned candidates. Even if one counts People Before Profit as nationalist that does not explain South Belfast where an SDLP seat has fallen to the Greens.

The waves of nationalism have receded to the extent that at the next election Arlene Foster may not be able to shroud wave convincingly that is it her or McGuinness (or his successor) for First Minister.

One might see this as the great rush to destroy Northern Ireland being defeated. Firstly there was the terrorist challenge. Then there was the political challenge helped by nationalist over confidence and unionist excessive defeatism. Instead like the last Fermanagh based leader of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster seems to have inherited a pretty stable situation. What she can do with this is a different question because although she has now inherited the leadership of a more confident and contented unionism she is left with the increased disenchantment on all sides in politics and in the old unionist / nationalist dichotomy. In addition she is stuck with the utterly dysfunctional nature of the executive with its interlocking vetoes and an institutionalised inertia which makes the old Stormont look fleet footed.

As such although unionism can be more confident: in politics happily ever after does not really exist. Furthermore although the waves of nationalism seem to have abated as Fitzjameshorse noted yesterday tides do turn.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.