We’ve just gone through the most bewildering election of our shortish, constitutional history. Bewildering because it not actually clear what it was for, other than to affirm the bare bones of what remains an unfinished deal.Having planted a poisoned chalice of directly imposed rates calculated by house values, and a new, hypothecated water tax (allegedly undoable if the parties don’t agree to share power by the 26th March), the Northern Ireland Office clearly hoped to inject some self interest in the process of voting. It had the not-altogether-unpleasant effect of drenching us in debating policy detail on the media.
Consolidation of the two leading parties was the one thing that was reliably on the cards in this election. But perhaps more importantly was the dog that didn’t bark: on this occasion the dissidents, both Republican and Loyalist. They’ve all been remarkably quiet since they were ‘counted out’ in the electoral tallies.
Some in Sinn Fein are muttering about the inordinate amount of time the mainstream media spent on the dissidents. In fairness, however, what we saw on the Republican side was the final step towards the democratisation of large numbers of those still holding out against the settlement contained within the Belfast Agreement. They may not agree with the settlement, but the question seems no longer to be whether to go back to war or not, but how to engage a population intent on a democratic rather than a revolutionary future.
For those on the Loyalist side, there now seems nowhere to go. Those closest to the paramilitaries worked either for mainstream pro St Andrews Agreement parties, or for Dawn Purvis, David Ervine’s successor as leader of the Progressive Unionists. In prosperous North Down, Bob McCartney lost his seat to Northern Ireland’s first Green Party MLA. One of the best hopes for the Anti Agreement lobby, Leslie Cubitt, told the BBC that he had stuck to his principles but that the people had spoken. He left on Friday afternoon for his holidays.
There is now no doubting that the settled will of all but a few die-hards on both sides, is for a peaceful settlement based on a principle of consent.
All in all, the best day’s work was done by Sinn Fein. They took four extra seats in what many of us predicted would be a tough battle over some very narrow ground. In the event, they won all their publicly stated target seats and were unlucky not to take another directly from the Ulster Unionists, in David Trimble’s old constituency.
Their nationalist rivals, the SDLP, only lost two seats but it looks as if it will cost them one of the two places they previously held in the Assembly’s Executive. It’s a strategic blow that may outlast the largely marginal lost constituency ground.
The DUP did well too. It made the largest seat gains (six) and pushed their vote up from the last Assembly election in 2003. Strangely however, where the party faced most of its, admittedly, low level, resistance (ie in the West and in rural areas) to a deal it did well. In Belfast it lost one seat through low electoral registration and lower turnout than in Gerry Adams’ West constituency.
But as Kevin Connelly from the BBC put it:
We’ve now had 35 election or referendum campaigns in 34 years. If you are asked to vote that frequently, it is hardly a sign that you live in a successful democracy.
Indeed. Northern Ireland has not (until this moment) been a success in democratic terms. As, perhaps the most vilified Irishman of the 19th/20th Century, Edward Carson once warned:
“We used to say that we could not trust an Irish parliament in Dublin to do justice to the Protestant minority. Let us take care that that reproach can no longer be made against your parliament, and from the outset let them see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority.”
Northern Ireland continues to enjoy that Protestant majority – and according to the last census figures
will looks set to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. If things play out the way the British and Irish governments intend, the new power-sharing arrangements the two parts of our northern community may finally have the means to live under a shared standard Carson once counselled.
The deciding factor in reaching that settlement is no longer dissent, but the size of the financial package both the DUP and Sinn Fein are asking for. Is £10 billion too much to ask from the Chancellor of the Exchecquer to have done with the UK’s most intractable (if now relatively minor) constitutional ‘difficulty’?
Over to you, Gordon!