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.

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  • smcgiff

    Interesting post, and also Fitzjameshorse’s ‘bad day’.

    I’ve said before that the only way to get nationalists interested again in politics is to make politics interesting. Interesting in the Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times’ way.

    While there is no opposition in Stormont there is no impetus. SF need to think about the bigger picture/long game.

    While it might be politically damaging in the short term to effectively hand power over to unionist parties, it’s the only way to reinvigorate nationalist voters. Things are simply too cushy as it stands.

    But, do they have the liathróidí for that when it would mean giving up high political office, which is nice for the few leaders.

    I very much doubt it.

  • ted hagan

    I think for the years after the foundation of the state there was a state of shock among northern nationalists at the drawing of the border but at the same time the the perception that it was temporary, that the unionists would see sense at the burgeoning state down south and that they soon be keen to have a share in it. This, of course, was misplaced, with the Catholic Church soon exerting its grip on the Free state and the unionists, Orange Order, and RUC in the North, given a free hand by Britain, resorting to the brutality and bullyboy tactics from where the seeds of the Trouble were sown.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Except that the border was sold to Ulster Unionists as permanent and they rapidly became extremely resistant to even redrawing it let alone removing it. The duplicitous attempts at problem solving by Lloyd George’s Gov’t exacerbated the intentionally precarious measure of a Unionist Govt for a Unionist people. If non-unionists were to have a stake in the polity then they might (and just might) have felt more secure with direct rule. On that conjecture where we would be now is open to the gods.
    We may not have a pre 1972 Stormont again but it could herald a more confident and unified unionism. How that plays out in the coming years will be interesting.

  • Skibo

    But to do so would they not be guilty of what they are accused of in the Dail. Fear of power. From what I see, the hard line Republicans have decided to stop voting. They see Stormont as a sell-out and do not look at the bigger picture. I do wonder had the referendum been held on the same day, what the turnout would have been.

  • smcgiff

    Exactly, their hope in the ROI was for FG & FF to form the government and SF would be the opposition. They hoped to get the bounce received from voters that don’t get their three wishes granted from the government of the day. Although not exactly a FG/FF government I suspect SF will not be so nuanced when challenging in the Dail.

  • Gingray

    Good article Turgon.
    Nationalists will hope that this is simply part of the normal pattern of nationalist voting established as far back as the 1860s (or before if one considers the various risings, then peace for a couple of generations, then rise again).
    Unionists can look at this as another nail in the UI coffin, and point to rising numbers of Catholics opting to view themselves as Northern Irish.
    The facts do not help either side – nationalist apathy, or Catholics being a majority, so this discussion will run and run.

  • cu chulainn

    NI was a gerrymander designed to keep a sordid 17th colonial project going. It has extended the life of that colony, but its days are numbered.

  • Skibo

    Apathy is a very dangerous thing in Irish politics. It is oft times filled acts of violence.

  • Gingray

    Actually apathy rarely saw violence it was the peaks that often saw it every few generations.

    But mostly that was a different world – political apathy does not equate to cultural or social, which means being Irish or Catholic is no longer to be treated different.

  • eamoncorbett

    I think the GFA doesn’t allow for a Unionist only administration at Stormont , if SF decided to go into opposition it would necessitate a review of the agreement .
    Powersharing is the only way forward with the two biggest parties sharing it out , however the scenario you envisage could hold benefits for SF ,as it could re activate the old sectarian attitudes in the DUP.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    One of my mates’ tweets on this got it about right – what’s happening within the C/N/R block now is just a slightly delayed version of what happened within the P/U/L block a decade or two ago. That is, the electorate has developed out of the Troubles mentality into a more normalised, modern kind of relationship with politics – more disengaged, less convinced by ethnic parties and so on. It’s not a complete shift of course, but it is a shift, it is significant and it’s not easily reversible. When people switch off from the programme, they really switch off.

    As one who wants to get away from ethnic block politics in NI, this is really good news.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Not so keen to move beyond the old ethno-nationalist politics then? The election provided some coffee for those willing to smell it. There is a better future there if we really want it. Complaining about the rights and wrongs of the 17th Century won’t get us there.

  • cu chulainn

    I am keen to move beyond old ethno nationalist policies. For this to happen NI whose concept is a relic from that time, needs to be got rid and normality restored.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    sorry but insisting on a change of sovereignty as a pre-requisite for progress is pure ethno-national politics

  • cu chulainn

    When people are trying to keep the 17th century going it is they who are the problem and they who should move into the modern age.

  • John Collins

    You are so right. Leading up to 1916,even allowing for the resricted electorate, the turnout in GEs, in what is now the Irish Republic was woeful and many seats were not even contested. This displayed a great disaffection from normal political activity and probably played a part in what happened after.