Mick who follows these things more closely than I do these days is also keener prospector for nuggets than I am. I’m afraid I can’t see much to attract the uncommitted voter to the election campaign in Northern Ireland, other than those who feel like a flutter on the results in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and East Belfast. It feels like zombies going through the motions in a faint imprint of the bad old days, where the worst lack conviction and the best are full of lack of intensity apart from Naomi. I’ve no nostalgia for the demented energy of the Troubles campaigns or the slow torture of David Trimble. That’s an undoubted gain. But what have we got today? Northern Ireland politics remains as introverted and isolated as ever from any mainstream, whether London’s or Dublin’s.
The coverage is emphasising this. Northern Ireland may be constitutionally part of the UK but it is barely part of the British political system and certainly not as much as divided Scotland. Although they’ve been blamed as usual, this isn’t the broadcasters’ fault. The Ulster Unionists had their chance last time to renew an old connection but ended up with Uncunf, that sounded like and was, a mess. Can anyone be blamed for failing to get worked up about Unionist unity, one way or another? What is it they actually disagree about again, other than which seat to occupy at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party? The SDLP wisely resisted flirtation with the husk of Fianna Fail but will they ever get themselves a leader? And what about the performance of the one all-Ireland party? Try as they might, they can’t shrug off the impression of a double headed, north-south Hydra, populist and threatening, but remaining fringe. I hand it to him, Mairtin O’Muilleoir was a great Lord Mayor and would make a great independent, like the young Gerry Fitt. And that’s a compliment.
Having rightly excluded them from the UK national debates, the London based media have made ritual attempts to make up the leeway by fleeting, ritual references to manifesto launches. Last night’s Newsnight was the sole major effort at coverage so far, in a graveyard edition following the opposition parties’ debate and clashing with Question Time on BBC1 . They might as well have been covering an election in Kazahkstan, as they peered blinking into the gloaming. The economically literate presenter Evan Davis probed more at social attitudes which are not an election issue than economics which could be after the election. You’d never have guessed that the Northern Ireland parties are still in deadlock over fiscal responsibility and the Stormont House Agreement. Nigel Dodds “won” by claiming about 10 times that the DUP could be “crucial” while insisting SF was irrelevant and the SDLP tied to Labour. The Alliance party, unfailingly decent, badly need more Naomis.
The Newsnight sequence was untroubled by reporting knowledge. Their seats prediction if I caught the brief flash right, managed to get the number of NI seats wrong. There was one piece of compensation. The embarrassment factor was fairly low. Nobody made a complete ass of himself ( no “her”). We can safely leave that to poor old Martin Smyth just off stage, who may not be entirely with us these days. Be thankful for small mercies. But will we ever do better than this?
Back at Westminster, I dare to pick a small bone with great polling analyst John Curtice.
Only towards the end was Mr Miliband once again put under pressure for not being willing to embrace the more radical ideas of the Nationalists and the Greens. Once again his chief inquisitor was Nicola Sturgeon, undoubtedly the most effective performer of the night. Sh ingness to put Mr Miliband into Downing Street and “help Labour be bolder”. Miliband unsurprisingly rejected the offer but consequently he was left with the unanswered question of whether he would prefer Mr Cameron to remain in power rather than be helped himself into power by the SNP.
This is a rare case of Curtice identifying the wrong question. Miliband can’t afford to discuss cooperation with the SNP while he struggles for votes in Scotland. The post- election scenario will be different, not least for the SNP. THE bogey of SNP bargaining power they and the Conservatives are making so much of now will be so much less later, however many seats they gain. If they hold the balance of power and deny it to Labour, it is they who will throw open the doors of No 10 to David Cameron. In truth, the SNP have no choice, if they want to screw more money out of London. Have the Northern Ireland parties clocked?
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