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