What chance now for more normal politics after the smash victories of the DUP and Sinn Fein? The pessimistic answer is that with an even firmer grip on their electorates, deadlock in government will tighten further, as a natural consequence of a system that insulates each party from the wider interests of the community as a whole. That may be so. And yet there are reasons for hope. Their rhetorical unity in the face of the dissident republican threat was impressive. There is every chance they will work together on a “respect “agenda to cope with the pressures of rival historical anniversaries on a win:win rather than a zero sum basis. Greater confidence in reaching out across the divide may be the result of not having to look over their shoulders at their rivals.
But there is a point slightly counterintuitive to the prevailing wisdom. Even in such a trend and pattern of results, the voters refused to set DUP/SF dominance in concrete. The other parties taken together won 41% of the vote and 37% of the seats, not enough indeed to deny weighted majorities nor create a cohesive third bloc, but too big to be ignored. The battered SDLP and UUs would be foolish to disappear into opposition: their footholds in the Executive give them their best chance of influence and action and the publicity that goes with it. Is it too much to hope for, that they might sometimes act together as catalysts for change and exemplars of good government? The swing of 2.5% to Alliance to take two Executive seats, one by renewed invitation from the others, shows what can be achieved by discipline and quietly effective leadership.
For the reasons above, any faint chance of voluntary coalition can be ruled out for a long time to come. Why should the DUP and SF risk their dominance when they enjoy mutual vetoes? In any case even with these record victories, they just failed to reach the 65% threshold majority associated with such a change. The smaller Assembly of 90 members and 6 full ministers next time round may further tighten the grip of the DUP/SF nexus. The vetoes will still apply.
So what will the leading parties do, with their dominance confirmed? It would seem they have little to bargain over. What for instance could the DUP trade SF for an Irish Language Act for instance, when unionist demands are so often negatives? The end of inquiries other than inquests into Troubles cases?
What will happen to that pious talk about a shared future and school integration – (but O Lord not yet) – that we heard in the first TV leaders’ debate? Was it any more than cynical bidding for lower transfers? Budgetary squeeze may yet be the best means of promoting some small steps of social change and economic reform. They could start by ending the disgrace of party patronage for the two regional hospitals and at last expedite public service reform. This should not be an entirely bureaucratic project.
What is sometimes forgotten in the politics of a divided society is that significant change cannot be forced on the bottom, whether the top is united or not. The deadlock over academic selection provides an acid test. Whoever is the SF minister, no government will dare to remove funding from grammar schools which continue to select. The DUP of course realise this and could afford to pass up the chance of taking the department. And yet the viability of selection has been eroding naturally for years.
Here is an opportunity for SF to score and win general approval to apply local democracy in action. The area education plans drawn up by a bureaucracy in should be opened up and reshaped for local amendment and choice in referendums. The available options customised for each area, should include integration, the end of selection and in some cases, closure. Financial incentives could be included in the package. The project could be piloted in a consultative basis.
The local referendum idea is more than pie in the sky. It is firmly on the agenda in England. From what I heard in the election debates, the politicians have a sense of a calmer political climate and may be searching for ways to exploit it. Local action should also draw in “civil society,” the professionals who stand aloof from party politics and are probably too nervous to challenge them, being clients of the same parties. Bottom up politics could be a means to begin closing the sectarian divide.
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