“Never flinch, never weary, never despair”

In her Irish Times column Fionnuala O’Connor, like many of us whose adulthood has spanned the Troubles, switches from marvelling at what’s been achieved, to gloom about the political future.

Stranger things have happened. The former leader of the IRA, after all, is at present Deputy First Minister in a Northern Ireland administration that is limited in its ability to make laws, unable to raise revenue but designed as a powerful symbol of compromise between long-time enemies.

Yet she goes on to say in the next sentence

But it is plain now beyond disguise that Stormont administrations are not going to build a unified society

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Fionnuala may be right. But there are a few different straws in the wind. Look at that Bel Tel poll, it doesn’t register a unionist move to the default right.

21% said they would most likely support Sinn Féin. The DUP was the second most popular party with 18%, leading the Ulster Unionist Party by 3%. The SDLP had 13%, followed by the Alliance party at 7%

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While one poll doesn’t make a unified society, the greater party bunching suggests a more interesting story emerging from the ongoing scandals and traumas. If this is sustained, it means an end to hopes and fears of two party dominance and increases the chances of more collegial government. I suggest the shape of things to come is far from “beyond disguise.” The ferment at the moment is not all about the zero sum, but is complex, internecine and personal. Recent traumas may be producing a gradual change of behaviour, with politicians coming to realise that with disarmament completed almost across the board – a development almost unnoticed amid the scandals – brinkmanship may be a wasting asset. It is certainly underwhelming the public. People talk about an isolated political class in England. It doesn’t compare with the remoteness of the folks up on Stormont hill. I take the long view from a distance; that we’re on a very rocky road to self government. The “unified society” is still out there, waiting to be discovered. At any rate it’s the only civilised working hypothesis. The default right is not the inevitable course for unionism. Nor is default despair for commentators.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London