“The potential to be the most important election in NI’s history?” A neck and neck result could be just what we need

“The potential to be the most important election in Northern Ireland’s history,” claims the peripatetic columnist Alex Kane, writing this time in the Newsletter today.  Alex is reflecting unionist collywobbles at the prospect of DUP/SF neck and neck. It raises the existential fear of the “known unknown” of unionist nemesis which is paradoxically more nerve wracking for many of them than  waiting impatiently for the conclusive  end of their long period as a minority is for nationalists.


It is quite possible that Sinn Fein could win the most seats on March 2; and it is also quite possible that unionists, for the first time ever, would not represent a majority in a Northern Ireland Parliament or Assembly.

Not having an overall unionist majority—even if the presence of 10/12 Alliance/Greens/PBP still ensured a comfortable lead over SF/SDLP—would, I believe, have a huge psychological impact across unionism.

How could it not when, for the first time since 1921, they didn’t represent a majority in Northern Ireland’s primary seat of government?

Well in my book, Alex is stronger on the mood of the day than on history. For negative impact, I’d rate tops the last ever election to the old Stormont parliament in 1969, when Terence “Ulster is at the crossroads” O’Neill failed to win over his party for liberal unionism, despite (because of ?) being photographed  smiling with nuns.

This was followed by the Assembly election of 1973 which saw the false dawn of the short-lived Executive of 1974,  thus sentencing us  to the long haul of the Troubles. Both are forever burned on the memory.  For positive impact, although unionist doubts were masked by the wider euphoria, the historic election of 1998 surely takes the palm, with whatever caveats attached.

In %vote share  the unionist-nationalist ratio was  47/ 40;  in  seats, 55 all U: 42 all Nat. Compare with 2016 results, % Share All U, 48: All Nat 36.  Seats 56/40.   Not exactly a huge difference. Hardly a disaster for unionists but definitely a  dip  for nationalists especially Sinn Fein.

So if Alex Kane was nervous for unionists, just look at Chris Donnelly’s unsparing analysis of Sinn Fein  here last week.

The combined Sinn Fein-SDLP share of the overall vote in last year’s election was a paltry 36%, the lowest combined share of the vote for the parties at Assembly, Westminster or European level since the 1992 Westminster election saw the SDLP take 23.5% and Sinn Fein 10% of the overall vote. The 40 SF-SDLP MLAs returned amounted to the worst combined representation for nationalism in the Assembly since the Good Friday Agreement.

Sinn Fein may be an all-Ireland party, but an inspection of its northern and southern wings would lead to two very separate conclusions.

Northern Sinn Fein appears tired and jaded, short on ideas and with a track record in the Executive era that has been short on delivery. To date, this has been overshadowed and, to some extent, compensated for by the patriarchal role fulfilled by Martin McGuinness that has seen him emerge as the great stabilizing influence of the devolution era.

But the passage of time since the peace process has brought with it a greater level of expectation within northern nationalism regarding the performance of their political class which has simply not been satisfied, and the dwindling appeal of voting for reasons attributed to fear or hostility to the other has meant many nationalists are either choosing to opt out or register their discontent by voting for alternatives- and, in 2016, that took the form of the urban fringe left party, People Before Profit.

Put bluntly, nationalists look at their two parties and have concluded that they do not represent nationalism putting its best foot forward… The sense that the DUP have the upper hand at Stormont, the lingering cynicism as a result of the local expenses stories, Sinn Fein’s confused handling of the welfare reform issue are but a few reasons encouraging the view that nationalism needs to sharpen its game.

Sinn Fein have failed to complete the transition process from a party born in conflict to one fit for purpose to govern which will bring the renewal and reinvigoration required to sharpen performance and enhance capacity to deliver through the Executive and elsewhere. Ironically, progress on this process of transition should now be hastened by the impact of the presence of a threat in the heartland constituencies of West Belfast and Foyle.

The causes of mutual nervousness aren’t hard to identify: predicting for a smaller 90 seat Assembly, the DUP’s hubris out of St Andrews in substituting FM nomination by the largest party for election of FM and dFM by bloc designation;  the  erratic record of the last mandate;  and  immediate political causes of the smash, seized on by Sinn Fein who have something to gain while the DUP  have quite a bit to lose.

And that is the overall weakness of political behaviour which at the same time is so compelling: the zero sum game in which one’s gain is the other’s loss. Seepage to “ other” and growing voter  indifference  aren’t part of the live game. And yet the message of the underlying trend is that the side which will win is the side which will ultimately gain a margin of support from the other.

This is achieved by a mix of  imaginative trading, or if preferred, mutual respect; a lowering of the gates that  over-strident  identity politics has created, a greater sense of  the public interest that replaces  cronyism and corruption  whether  real, exaggerated or fabricated ; and  without causing panic all around,  starting to build a dimension of cross community  politics that reflects cooperation  on the ground and leaves the crocodiles in their swamps. And all of that expressed in language  that strikes a deep chord in people’s real life experience.

At the moment most emphasis  remains  in getting out the core; but time has shown that  the core is only so big and only so many votes can be squeezed out of it. It’s the slow  emergence  from denial of this salient fact that is causing the parties so much concern.  The election  results – perhaps above all  turnout –  will tell us if  realisation is now dawning faster than before.

Tactics  are  well practised but still  steeped  in old school. A tight margin could actually be good for the game which could  then go either way: either towards a more flexible open game after some intensive  new coaching to produce a few attractive surprises and higher scoring; or yet another bout of the  old risk averse zero sum struggle, rolling around in the mud.

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