The election is over, the results are in, and the signal being sent by the electorate in Northern Ireland is clear and unambiguous. The DUP’s position as the dominant party within a socially and economically conservative administration has been comprehensively re-endorsed, alongside their coalition partner, Sinn Féin. There has, fundamentally, been no change at all in the balance of power in Northern Ireland.
No reasonable person could deny that the DUP victory is a remarkable accomplishment on many levels, the work of a dedicated and highly professional election team. It would be normal for the electorate to give a sitting government a bit of a kicking on the way into a third term, and the DUP would have likely settled for a loss of two or three seats. But Arlene “played a blinder”, to use the common vernacular, much the same as her predecessor did. In the face of an extremely challenging assembly term, which saw the flag protests (along with the fall, rise, and fall of various loyalist protest groups), parading problems especially in Ardoyne, the NAMA scandal, welfare reform, challenges from the TUV, UKIP, countless right-wing unionist independents and a supposedly resurgent PUP, the resignation of the UUP and the reorganising of that party under Mike Nesbitt, the party was safely and securely re-elected.
Had the DUP reacted to the matter involving Jenny Palmer with a little more care, they would have had a net seat gain, and the UUP a net seat loss, but they have little to complain about. Anti-agreement unionism is dead. The UUP’s best leader since Trimble hasn’t made an impact, and have been all but eliminated in Belfast.
While Sinn Féin took a minor beating, they’re still very much secure in position as an essentially co-equal coalition partner with the DUP. Their electorate endorses their ongoing work in government with the DUP, just as the DUP’s electorate has endorsed power-sharing with SF. Nationalism is in trouble, but those troubles will have nothing to do with how the country is going to be governed in the coming years.
Even though the outcome of the election is essentially one of no overall change at the Executive, the fact that this re-endorsement comes after two full terms changes the political parameters that the government and the assembly operate within. The smaller parties cannot cling to the possibility, as they might have done in 2007 or 2011, that the DUP/SF are somehow temporary, that their votes are borrowed, or that their own votes are on an upward trajectory – the small Executive parties all either held their position or lost seats. The DUP and SF are now the natural parties of government.
This is something that many of us did not expect, a warning, perhaps, of the consequences that come from putting too much store in the social media, traditional media, or real-world social or family echo chambers that many of us occupy. As such, it falls to those of us who have been shown to have been wrong to critically re-evaluate where we are.
Alliance’s justification for taking up the Justice post in 2010, and retaining it in 2011 along with the DEL post, was, and remains, entirely sound for the scenario that existed at the time. The principal concern was to ensure that the devolution of justice could be delivered and the institutions kept stable, but there were other important justifications. Alliance members, and voters, are pragmatists; participationists. They like to get their hands dirty and get down to what can realistically be accomplished now, rather than standing on ideological purity. They support their representatives taking difficult decisions and bringing competency, fairness, and a steady hand to the government. Ford’s election to the role as Justice Minister shows that on some level, even the DUP and SF recognise this. The party’s two ministers threw themselves into their roles. While others turned out the streetlights, Alliance worked the difficult budgets, pressing through reform, securing agreement and solving problems. They performed admirably.
But the outcome of this election changes all of these calculations. The powersharing institutions are very secure and do not need to be saved. The public have moved beyond giving the DUP and SF a chance, or giving them time to make it work – they’ve seen their record in government and have decided that they like it. At the same time, the expansion of the centre, mostly at the expense of nationalism, has benefited parties which have no plans to enter government, and pointedly did not benefit Alliance. During the leadership debate, Martin McGuinness talked of how well he works with successive DUP leaders. If this is true, then Martin should have no problem negotiating a DUP or SF Justice Minister.
The nature of the DUP/SF mandate means that the parties have less incentive to court Alliance than they did before. They have less reason to make deals and stick to them, and more reason to “use” the Justice Minister to force through difficult and popular decisions, much as they did when they forced Stephen Farry to implement higher education cuts.
But the decision not to enter the government is not a straightforward one. If Alliance do choose to pass on Justice, the party will never be asked to take it on again as long as the DUP/SF coalition remains in power, as those parties will agree a deal to appoint their own. If the party advances a case for non-participation, it will need to construct a case to enable re-entry to the government if or when the day comes when it earns the right to a ministerial post under d’Hondt. The SDLP and UUP both struggled with this question during the election.
But more than these party political considerations are questions around the structures in the Assembly. The opposition provisions include funding for parties who turn down a seat they would otherwise have been allocated under d’Hondt. They do not provide opposition funding for parties who turn down the chance to be appointed by the Assembly to the Department of Justice. If the other parties choose to enter opposition, it will be a case of constantly vying for attention between the funded SDLP and UUP figures, Alliance, and the small parties including the extremely able Jim Allister. There will be no Leader of the Opposition, and no agreed opposition programme.
However, it has become clear to me now, as a longtime supporter of participation and staying in government, a huge admirer of the Alliance leader and everything he and his team have accomplished, and as someone who has little hope that any of the middle-sized parties could reach agreement on how to oppose the government or land punches upon it, that we have reached the point where the country faces permanent DUP/SF control unless something relatively dramatic happens to persuade people to change how they vote. Opposition might not work, but I see no other way of landing punches on the government while making the case to be the alternative government that those of us on the relative centre must aspire to be.
A couple of years back, Alliance started a party political broadcast with the old saying “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. I know that the party will be considering this carefully internally, and whatever conclusion they arrive at will be defensible – and since I’m an unreconstructed Alliance bigot, it will have my support, either way. But I think the time may have come to make the leap.
The author is a lifelong Alliance supporter, but holds no position within Alliance, made no contact with Alliance officials when writing this article, and writes for Slugger in an entirely personal capacity.