An alternative take on Northern Ireland on the networks

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?

  • Framer

    To an English person and particularly an English gay interviewer, Northern Ireland is only exemplified by the Ashers cake row.
    Inevitable I know.
    And Dodds nimbly got away without being hurt by the issue.
    Actually the bigger picture is the total inability of any English person to empathise with Unionists. Sympathy yes, but empathy is simply beyond them.
    How can a whole people live in such a bubble of inability to comprehend competing nationalisms?

  • Brian

    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.

    You might be right…

    But only up to a point.

    More probable is that the likelihood of a hung parliament, and the new reality of coalition governments for the foreseeable future, has prompted “the London based media” to realise they might want to start acquainting their audience with parties that might just be a part of the next coalition – or, at least, prop up the next government.

    The BBC national news at six was at it today, mentioning a number of local parties as potential coalition supporters, if not partners, of either a Labour-led government or a Conservative one.

    They went on to note that a third option could be a minority government, probably Conservative, where the smaller parties, including Northern Irish ones, would not wish to bring down the government and cause another election.

    The UUP and Sinn Féin, as I recall, didn’t get a mention. And I don’t remember their manifesto launches meriting coverage either.

    The first because they are unlikely to win a seat, according to the forecasts.

    The second because their absenteeism absents themselves from the arithmetic of a hung parliament, and the subsequent negotiations.

  • Brian Walker

    Pete, Although no doubt there’s real interest in how Ni parties might behave in a hung parliament, that’s not how decisions about election coverage are taken. There is a real need to represent all parties somehow and this has become more difficult in a genuinely multiparty election. I would guess – although I haven’t been talking to them – that the broadcasters will have been quite encouraged by the performances and audience seizes of the leaders’ debates. They didn’t lapse into chaos. I doubt though if this will help the local parties’ case for places on a future UK national stage. That would only come about if the main
    parties were to stand in Northern Ireland or the local parties were to become properly affiliated to them. I think we all realise that’s unlikely to happen.

  • George

    “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.”

    The odd thing about Sinn Féin now is that what they do north of the border is now less relevant as due to their electoral strength south of the border the Republic’s voters now look to how they can effect their everyday lives. You may consider them fringe in the NI (UK election) political landscape but the populist threat (as you describe it) is very real south of the border. They are no longer fringe in the all-island sea they are swimming in and all they need to achieve on May 7th is to hold their own. The real battle for votes and power has moved jurisdictions.

  • Jaime

    Describes the One All-Ireland party as “threatening..”,without naming them,thus denying that Party any Oxygen of Publicity on this widely followed blog
    …&from an”Impartial Reporter”! Same old,same old/yawn,yawn!