“Deal will come sooner than people think”

While Alex Kane acknowledges that this election campaign has to be one of the dullest on record, he also notes that in the dull detail of the campaign he sees the space emerging in which a one time fundamentalist political project is preparing to move on. By Alex Kane

Is it just me, or is this a really dull election campaign so far? And I don’t just mean dull in the sense that a David Ford speech is dull; I mean mind-numbingly dull, what’s-the-point-of-it-all dull, who-are-these-idiots-on-my-doorstep dull, will-my-vote-make-any-difference dull. So dull, in fact, that a photo-opportunity of Ian Paisley tossing a pancake attracted a mob of news-crews and deadline-looming hacks. Perhaps it was the ultimate sign of the DUP’s electoral confidence that none of their press team had any worries at all about headlines linking the words Paisley and tosser!

This should be an exciting, dramatic, political breakthrough campaign. Sinn Fein and the DUP are seeking a mandate to govern together, a prospect that wasn’t even on the horizon a decade ago. Both parties have abandoned the mantras of the past, have pole-vaulted away from supposedly fixed positions and are now three-quarters of the way up the aisle. The DUP may have voted against the Civil Partnership Bill in Westminster, but it won’t stop them entering an uncivil marriage of convenience with Sinn Fein in a matter of months.

For all of the rumours of internal tensions and strong-arm tactics, the DUP’s civil war never materialised. All of the candidates signed their contracts and put their collective imprimatur upon the manifesto. And every single DUP MLA will support the deal—and it will come much sooner than people think—which gives the nod to the creation of an Executive Committee which has Sinn Fein on board. The moment for a possible rebellion has come and gone; the DUP will not be falling apart and there will be no realignment required between the UUP and the DUP’s so-called pragmatists in order to keep the show on the road. The DUP has come through its moment of crisis and has come through relatively unscathed.

All of which has come as a terrible blow to poor old Bob McCartney. He is running a “last hurrah” campaign which consists of having to put himself on the ballot paper in six constituencies, while endorsing a rag, tag and bobtail collection of the electorally unknown and the politically forgotten. There were no big name defections from the DUP rallying to his banner and no sign that his anti-Agreement, anti-St Andrews, anti-d’Hondt rhetoric was having any impact beyond his own home and hearth.

I remember that moment in November 1981, on yet another “Day of Action” orchestrated by the DUP, when McCartney grabbed the microphone from Ian Paisley and described him as a “fascist who is more interested in an independent Ulster, a mini-Geneva run by a fifth-rate Calvin..” Like many other unionists at the time, I pricked up my ears. Here was a new, articulate voice; a voice that spoke of pluralism and making the pro-Union cause more attractive to a wider audience. In early 1982 I wrote a piece in which I described Bob as the “possible leader of a new, revived and broader-based Unionism.”

Yet there he was in Lisburn marketplace, twenty-six years later, barracking Ian Paisley and accusing him of having gone soft! The difference between the two men this time is that Paisley has moved on and accepted certain, albeit unpleasant, political realities. For Bob, though, time has stood still and he refuses to accept the realities. In terms of pure logic and natural justice his arguments cannot be faulted; unfortunately, the logic and arguments tend to collapse when they come face to face with cold, hard, practical politics.

I think it was Reggie Maudling, a former Cabinet colleague, who said this of Enoch Powell: “We all aspire to remain on the train of logic. The tragedy for Enoch is that while we are prepared to get off at Hammersmith, he insists on going all the way to Barking.” I fear that Bob may be on a similar journey. If so, it is a sad end to a political career.

Mind you, Jeffrey Donaldson’s response to the encounter between Bob and the DUP entourage was quite interesting. He accused him of trying to ambush Paisley and said that his behaviour was “disgraceful and was a most undignified way for a party leader to act.” Can this be the same Mr. Donaldson who tried to ambush David Trimble at a series of UUC meetings and who even went so far as to ambush him during a radio phone-in? Kettle and pot, Jeffrey; kettle and pot.

Actually, the oddest thing of all about the Lisburn incident was Ian Paisley’s image. Clad in a black coat and an even blacker Fedora he looked like an older and genial version of Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. And trailed, as he was, by Jeffrey and the wonder-kids from DUP HQ, one couldn’t help wondering if he was sizing up one of them for lunch.

And it’s been a good campaign, too, for the UUP, compared to the last few; with a forward-looking socio/economic agenda and no own goals on the PR or poster front. There will be no dramatic bounceback for the party this time round, but I suspect it will do a lot better than most critics and commentators think. It’s certainly not going to meltdown, let alone disappear.

The one fear I do have, though, is that of voter apathy. Northern Ireland is now well placed for economic and political stability and Unionism is equally well placed to take advantage of that stability. The campaign may have been dull, but that is no excuse for not voting. Indeed, the very dullness of the campaign may be a sign of how normal politics is becoming here.

First published in the Newsletter

  • slug

    Interesting piece.

    “Northern Ireland is now well placed for economic and political stability and Unionism is equally well placed to take advantage of that stability. The campaign may have been dull, but that is no excuse for not voting. Indeed, the very dullness of the campaign may be a sign of how normal politics is becoming here.”

    An unusually up-beat tone for Alex, who is usually part of the “were doomed” brigade.

  • Pete Baker

    “Indeed, the very dullness of the campaign may be a sign of how normal politics is becoming here.”

    I’d suggest Alex has this completely wrong.

    The alternative interpretation is that the dullness is down to the reluctance of certain parties to discuss the, still out-standing, issues which could, potentially, cause them embarrassment amongst their grassroots.

    And with a general media not wishing to rock the boat against the wishes of the NIO, that’s exactly the kind of campaign we’d expect.

  • Henry94

    The dullness may be a permanent feature of a system where an election will never lead to a change of government.

    In the south in May there will be the real question of who will sit at the cabinet table. In Britain the question of Cameron or Brown for PM will provide a human drama.

    The north has none of that and with six-seat constituencies even the local drama will be marginal and unexciting.

  • Pete Baker

    Henry

    That somewhat cynical analysis ignores the circumstances of past elections to an Assembly here.

    Unless you’re advocating a voluntary coalition, that is..

  • Henry94

    Pete

    It’s not intended to be cynical. I just think the system lacks the elements of drama that make an election exciting. I take your point about the first couple of elections but novelty helped as did the internal battles within unionism and nationalism.

    Unless you’re advocating a voluntary coalition, that is..

    Hardly. In politics, as in marriage, bad as it is there are worse things than dullness.

  • Pete Baker

    If you’re not advocating a voluntary coalition, Henry, your criticism of the current arrangement, as compared to elsewhere, is meaningless.

    As for the comparative novelty of the previous elections.. I’ve pointed out why this time round it is preferable, for some, to keep tempers down..

    And with a general media not wishing to rock the boat against the wishes of the NIO, that’s exactly the kind of campaign we’d expect.

  • Henry94

    Pete

    It was an observation about the current arrangements rather than a criticism. It is possible to see a possible drawback in a situation but to still on balance support it.

  • Henry94

    I think Pete you are more invested in your explanation than I am in mine. I was just speculating.

  • Pete Baker

    Henry

    Some of us see the drawbacks and point to alternatives.

    You appear to want to see the drawbacks but to still support the same system with those drawbacks intact.

    And you still haven’t addressed the point I made about why this election appears dull.

    And with a general media not wishing to rock the boat against the wishes of the NIO, that’s exactly the kind of campaign we’d expect.

  • Henry94

    Pete

    And you still haven’t addressed the point I made about why this election appears dull.

    If you insist then I will address it.

    And with a general media not wishing to rock the boat against the wishes of the NIO, that’s exactly the kind of campaign we’d expect.

    Could be.

  • Pete Baker

    Well, that’s, at least, a slight acknowledgement of the parties’ particular concerns.

    Let’s go back to the reason for that concern

    The alternative interpretation is that the dullness is down to the reluctance of certain parties to discuss the, still out-standing, issues which could, potentially, cause them embarrassment amongst their grassroots.

  • páid

    It’s the replacement of the long war with the long draw

  • Pete Baker

    Indeed, páid

    Nothing to do with how an elected local government can actually do the job they’re elected for.

  • Henry94

    Someone once said a grassroot is a hayseed surrounded by bullshit.

    Part of the art of electioneering is to get the fanatics who go to meetings to sell moderation at the doorsteps. I don’t think that is unique to this election.

  • The Dubliner

    It is unreasonable to stipulate that people must censor a criticism or observation about the political status quo pertaining to NI “democracy” unless they accompany it with a blueprint and a manifesto for an alternative democracy. Not providing a solution is not a reason not to identify the problem.

    The problem with that curious stipulation, IMHO (added to affect an appearance of humility), is that it has the effect of censoring dissenting voices in a debate and (which, I’m sure was never your intent) and loading the agenda in favour of the status quo, those who agree with it (and those who have a team of 500 researchers at work on the solution to the problem they have identified).

    Incidentally, this is the same censorship tactic that worked rather well for PSF in silencing (and encouraging others not to listen to) dissenting voices on the ‘debate’ within provisional republicanism concerning support for the PNSI. It is improper to ‘address’ criticism by the simple expedient of avoiding it i.e. answering “Well, what is your alternative?”

    Anyway, perhaps the “securocrats” will liven things up post-election by collapsing the assembly again as they did in 2002? Oh, the fun and the games…

  • Pete Baker

    Once again, Henry, you gloss over previous elections here with a meaningless generalisation.

    But aren’t you a grasssroot supporter?..

  • Henry94

    But aren’t you a grassroot supporter?..

    Indeed.

    Once again, Henry, you gloss over previous elections here with a meaningless generalisation.

    If I could think of a meaningful generalisation I would.

    But instead of trying to argue with me when I don’t have a strong view on the issue at hand why don’t you flesh out your theory that the journalists are doing the bidding of the NIO? I’m quite willing to believe it but I do see other possible explanations for the dullness. Who knows, they might all be true.

    In previous elections there was an internal battle within unionism and within nationalism. Those appear over now so that takes some excitement out.

    Of course just because the campaign in dull doesn’t meant the results will be. There may well be surprises.

  • middle-class taig

    Voluntary coalition will not brighten up the dullness. Instead of a four-party permanent government, it would establish a two-party permanent government, with perhaps the only issue of interest being whether the UUP or DUP partnered the SDLP.

    d’Hondt is the only show in town for now, and quite right too. “Northern Ireland” is a democratic travesty ab initio – it can only be maintained in an aberrant, exceptional and deviant manner.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I think Alex’s article is very good. I hope he is right, that the obstructionists fail and that the DUP do go into government. This is going to be the litmus test.

    MCT:

    Voluntary coalition will not brighten up the dullness. Instead of a four-party permanent government, it would establish a two-party permanent government, with perhaps the only issue of interest being whether the UUP or DUP partnered the SDLP.

    Only if it was based on a simple majority.

    To prevent one tribe taking over, you’d have to have an executive requiring a weighted majority. Say 2/3rds. This way things would be more sensible. With the mood I’m in at the moment, I’d just like to see the pragmatic people get together and exclude the DUP.

  • slug

    I think designation will be removed within some years, dependong on just how well (or badly) the present system of parallel vetos works. The next Prime Minister (well David Cameron, who has a good chance to be such) has said he opposes designation so that is a helpful boost to those aiming to get rid of it. If the Greens get an MLA and the Alliance keep a good representation then there will be further amunition.

    As for D’Hondt, that is a separate issue. I think much will depend on how the executive fares and whether the present arrangement works well. If not then alternative will need to be found.

    Basically things will move step by step resolving problems as they arise, with long and variable lags, much as the process has evolved over the last 10 years.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I think designation will be removed within some years, dependong on just how well (or badly) the present system of parallel vetos works.

    We’ll know following the outcome of this election. The trouble is that the designation system benefits the four large parties, they have fought tooth and nail to defend it in the past and will continue to do so. The system is ridiculous – it means that if you don’t vote Prod or Taig then you don’t count.