“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.

, , ,

  • Fear Éireannach

    No doubt the DUP’s Brexit policy will have won the hearts of Eastern Europeans, along with the burning of their flags on sectarian bonfires.

    As I posed before, the monitoring of employment shows the direction things are going in. Many Catholics and most others may have an expedient toleration of the union for the present, but they are hardly a bulwark against a United Ireland if the wind changes.

    https://3.bp.blogspot.com/-kRjupI_l2Mw/WIx8UD6hKRI/AAAAAAAAAi8/1PrYHhMnZZMgRlaXFsRmUI9JaZoQCv7vQCLcB/s1600/2017-01-27-14-58-22–1775038336.png

    As for sectarianism, nationalists want the end of sectarian NI and so are anti-sectarian.

  • Conchúr Ó Conghaile

    Whats wrong with multiculturalism?

  • johnny lately

    Still avoiding the truth that loyalism also had a campaign of violence and murder that they directed at the Catholic community before PIRA was formed.

  • johnny lately

    Others can’t engage with you on this site GOW, you can say what you like while others would be banned. Your the slugger equivalent of a Loyalist Dodo bird, a protected species.

  • johnny lately

    Read today’s Irish news AG there’s an article in it about Pat Sheehan where he talks about those non red lines that really are red lines. Sinn Fein have the ball and unless unionism can somehow intercept and take it off them a very long period of direct rule until Brexit is on the cards. The end result will be a border poll.

  • aquifer

    The DUP would have 0.5m poor sods trapped in a ‘cold house’. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

    And don’t worry, play your cards right and Ireland will be back in her majesty’s Commonwealth, just like an independent Scotland.

  • aquifer

    And want to join a majority Catholic state and keep religious schools so are .. ?

  • Fear Éireannach

    What do religious schools have to do with anything?

  • Fear Éireannach

    Not only that but a UI and an Independent Scotland ,will participate enthusiastically in genuine equal East-West bodies across the Irish Sea.

  • David Crookes

    Answer: a rather large number of fantasts will refuse to live peacefully with the new reality.

    ‘But Stormont will still be in place as a regional administration,’ declare some of the blogospherical prophets.

    That must not be allowed to happen. It would encourage the fantasts to believe that nothing had really changed.

    Even today, some unionist politicians are behaving as if the unionist First Minister is rather like the unionist Prime Minister in bygone days of yore.

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    Its an interesting point. One could argue and say that you could perhaps look at the percentage of catholics in primary school compared with other faiths and use that as a barometer of sorts. Do you have those figures to hand Robert?

  • Msiegnaro

    Those 250k don’t make much noise if they do exist?

  • David Crookes

    Forty-five years ago! Which means that NI has been unstable for nearly as long as it was stable.

  • Msiegnaro

    No passport yet, I’ll wait until a UI becomes closer before moving on.

  • Mark Petticrew

    I think more attention should be given to the identity returns in forecasting the demographic waiting game. For instance, 10.3% of Catholics in the 2011 Census identify as British only – if you identify with the British state, I doubt you’ll want to leave it.

    Additionally, some 27% of Catholics identified as Northern Irish only in the 2011 Census. An interesting 2015 QUB study was carried out into the NI identity, finding that Catholics who identified as Northern Irish were less likely to see themselves as nationalists (34.2%) or favour Irish unity (20.8%) compared to Irish-identifying Catholics (69%; 59.2%).

    Similarly, a 2015 B&A poll found a lesser percentage of Northern Irish-identifying Catholics (66%) supported a united Ireland in their lifetime compared to Catholics who identified as Irish (91%).

    Whilst religious demographics are certainly a helpful guide, looking to one’s identity gives a more focused understanding of Catholics as a whole in regard to the contemporary Irish question.

  • Msiegnaro

    No ill only need the one for when my time comes to leave for good.

  • Madra Uisce

    But when people are getting murdered by gangs with apparent impunity in circumstances where the normal policing and criminal justice system is simply unable to fulfil its duty to protect people, and the state has a non-violent *temporary* measure it can use that could save lives – is it not a reasonable course to try that?

    This massive hole in that argument is the fact that Loyalists were allowed to kill over two hundred people between 1971 and 1973 with impunity as it was Govt policy not to intern Protestants therefor the Govt failed in its duty to protect people by allowing Loyalists to murder with impunity.

  • Obelisk

    I personally believe such polls, from just before the EU referendum, are now of limited use. Anything pre-Brexit should be regarded with some suspicion. Hell anything now should be regarded with suspicion, the world is in a ferment. You won’t get a good reading on people until the following

    1.) The Brexit negotiations conclude, Brexit occurrs and we see where we stand, including in regards to the border.

    2.) To see if Scotland’s indyref2 goes ahead and if it is successful.

    Once those two events finish, THEN we can begin to poll what people think.

    Right now nobody really knows what is about to happen.

  • Mark Petticrew

    It’ll occur at some point during this century Robert, preferably in my lifetime.

  • Mark Petticrew

    I suppose there’s truth in that, for Brexit may well change everything. Should a particularly negative change occur in people’s material circumstances post-Brexit, it could politicise those who were previously indifferent or reasonably content with the constitutional status quo. Potentially interesting times ahead.

  • Obelisk

    Exactly. There is no point in listening to certain politicians who say Catholics are becoming more supportive of the Union when the context of that growing support has, for want of a better phrase, been completely annihilated. We have to see what the new context is and how people respond to it. There is an excellent chance it will be a LOT less comfortable, less lulling, than the old setup was.

  • Obelisk

    The South is post Catholic at this point in the same way that England is post Anglican. It’s still there but it’s not running the show.

    I don’t get why the South being this supposedly Catholic state is such a big deal. I mean they legalised equal marriage through referendum! If that doesn’t tell you the Church isn’t charge any more I don’t know what would.

  • JohnTheOptimist

    I’d be very surprised if your suggestion is true, but I’m open to persuasion if you can supply figures. What we do know is that, despite being much lower than a generation ago, fertility rates in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are both today still higher than in any other EU country and their abortion rates are lower than in any other EU country. What’s striking is how similar the fertility rates and abortion rates are in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and how different they both still are to any other EU country. In both the Republic of Ireland and Northern ireland there are annually around twice as many births as deaths, whereas in an increasing number of EU countries there are now fewer births than deaths. The contrast with Scotland is stark (I single out Scotland only because of its close cultural affinity to the unionist community in Northern ireland).. Scotland has one of the lowest fertility rates in western Europe and also now has fewer births than deaths. What I’ve never been able to find is figures for the respective fertility rates and ratios of births to death of the two communities in Northern Ireland. Are the fertility rate and ratio of births to deaths in the unionist community similar to the high levels of the Republic of Ireland and the nationalist community in Northern Ireland or similar to the low levels in Scotland? If anyone can supply figures on these, I’d be interested. Cairn O’Neill makes a good point about the respective percentages in primary schools. While figures show the percentage of the population under 30 is much higher in nationalist areas than in unionist areas.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    No doubt but i’m inclined to put this down to incompetent unionism rather than brilliant SF. (Though i don’t deny their well oiled election machine).

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    True. But in order to do so we need to establish what the ‘fear’ is.

    So far M seems to fear a loss of the block grant and the EU and right wing economics.

  • JohnTheOptimist

    I agree. In my post above I referred to ‘both nationalist parties’. On reflection this was an inaccurate description. Neither are particularly Irish-nationalist, more hard-left and soft-left varieties of socialism. The unionist parties are unashamedly British-unionist (to their credit) and the main focus of their activity is putting forward the case for Northern Ireland remaining within the UK. The SNP are unashamedly Scottish-nationalist and the main focus of their activity is putting forward the case for Scotland becoming independent. Do SF and the SDLP see the main focus of their activity as putting forward the case for a United Ireland? I don’t think so. The SDLP can hardly be described as nationalist at all. You are far more likely to see the LGBT flag being flown at an SDLP gathering than the Irish tricolour (nothing against LGBT people in making that point). While SF have subordinated their position as the main vote-getter within the nationalist population in Northern Ireland to that of a relatively minor far-out opposition party in the Republic. While nationalists in the north need a party that can articulate positively the case for integration with the Republic, by reference to the Republic’s greater achievements both economically and socially in recent decades, SF actually spend most of their time portraying the Republic as hell on earth. Then they wonder why the nationalist vote is declining.

  • JohnTheOptimist

    You touch on a valid point about Eastern European immigrants. I’d guess that, regardless of their religious affiliation, most would up to now have preferred Northern ireland to remain in the UK. Probably due to the UK being larger and their own countries having historically closer links to the UK than to the Republic of Ireland. This is very likely to change with Brexit. If Ireland is in the EU and the UK isn’t, then immigrants from other EU countries are more likely to prefer Northern Ireland to be part of the Republic since the Republic, as a fellow EU-member, will be offering them rights (right to reside, work etc) that the UK will be removing from them.

  • Fear Éireannach

    Birthrate data is available by local authority district and this can readily be correlated with voting preferences in those areas. The late Horseman did some work on this some years ago

    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_X3qgX1zX2Hs/SqjpybdzgXI/AAAAAAAAAc0/_CYZxgZrBBg/s400/TPFR+by+DC.JPG

    the point is that “Catholic” birthrate is a bit higher, but was significantly higher in the 1980s and so there are also more people of child bearing age from a Catholic background. The combination of these means that there will be a majority from that background for the foreseeable future.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I agree it would have looked better to intern some Loyalists and not doing so was a PR mistake. The counter-argument is though that In 1971 pre-internment, Loyalists were not anywhere near as active as Republicans – and internment was looked to specifically because of a spate of Republican killings. Police also caught Loyalists more easily and while it’s hard to get definitive figures, it seems proportionately Loyalists did at least much time per murder as Republicans. Some figures indicate Loyalists were disproportionately likely to go to jail. So while internment was unevenly applied, the overall results of security action against Loyalists compared to Republicans does not show a pro-Loyalist bias.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    (Splutters out mouthful of beer)

  • MainlandUlsterman

    No, that’s not great either. Though at least they haven’t murdered a load of people, which is a bit better. In the kingdom of the blind and all that …

  • woodkerne

    Shucks!

  • MainlandUlsterman

    That’s a valid view and is the conventional one to take. I just think that there are circumstances where saving lives justifies some very serious civil liberties restrictions. Internment of German nationals was used for example in WW2 for national security reasons. Drastic measure and horribly unfair to individuals involved – my old law tutor’s father was one of those interned and he was actually a Jewish refugee (!) – but probably a measure justified by the greater public need to stifle German intelligence work inside the UK.

  • burnboilerburn

    Discrimination kills people. Very slowly, but kills all the same.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    The figures are in the census……the collapse of Catholic Church attendance…the lack of cohesion..the poor catholic catechesis in the school. The liberals do not even realise that integrated education and Irish schools will further weaken this.The whole ” community ” is in demographic transition. Plus conservative evangelical Protestants now have a higher birthrate.Look to Quebec. and see the pattern….loss in Ctholic faith , decline of community.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    just listen to Welsh results being declared by returning officers who can barely speak Welsh!

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    Scotland two will be like Quebec two ..a failure.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    And unlike Rhodesia they have kept their farms and estates.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I would respectfully suggest though that having one’s life unjustly ended is of a different order from any other unfairnesses we may suffer – both in terms if the magnitude of the wrong and the magnitude of the impact on the person and those around them.

    Discrimination is a bad thing and should not happen but it’s hardly in the same league as a summary execution, when it comes to the evils of this world.

    In any case I’m sure the DUP would argue they don’t support discrimination anyway.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I think you’re spot on there.

    The other factor reducing the potential number of Catholic votes for a UI is that some who are nationalist and do favour it may fear what sending NI into a UI would do to the security situation in the Province. I suspect it’s a big factor, especially for the less politically inclined, the “it would be a nice thing when the time is right” brigade. The time may never actually be right for them, when push comes to shove.

  • burnboilerburn

    I agree, bloody sunday and ballymurphhy massacre are good examples.

  • johnny lately

    Indeed which proves my point.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    and yet younger adult Catholic voters are less united-Ireland inclined than middle-aged ones. As they grow up and have their own kids, and as religion itself defines people less and less, what implications might that have?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    People should bear that graph in mind a lot more, they might then talk more accurately about the Troubles – thanks for posting

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Bloody Sunday for sure; Ballymurphy I know less about but of course any murder is wrong whoever does it

  • Skibo

    And where they couldn’t find the information, they were more than capable of beating a confession out of them!
    AS with internment and the length of time people serve waiting for trial being the equivalent of internment.

  • burnboilerburn

    Ya Paul Givan could lead that charge and give us all a good laugh.

  • Madra Uisce

    A couple of things you ignore, Brexit and the rise of English Nationalism, the Union is finished.

  • Madra Uisce

    Absolute nonsense, the brits made a conscious decision not to intern loyalists even though they were involved in sectarian murder. The first loyalists were not interned until Feb 1973 nearly eighteen months after internment had begun,between 1971 and 1973 loyalists murdered nearly 200 people mainly innocent civilians including the single biggest act of mass murder of the troubles. As for your claim that that more loyalists were caught by police and that their sentences were the same as republicans im afraid that unless you produce the facts and figures them it remains only your skewered opinion.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    We did this on a thread a month or two ago. I’ll dig out a link when I have more time. What we established then was that the court and prison stats are trickier to get hold of than you might expect, but Bruce in “The Red Hand” provides the observation that at the time he was writing (late 80s?) there were roughly equal numbers of Loyalists and Republicans doing life for terrorist murders; Republican murders though were double the number done by Loyalists, suggesting Loyalists were on that measure twice as likely to be caught and convicted. But that was one snapshot. More definitive data welcomed and I will look again myself.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    They should boost the nationalist vote. But if you think the Union is finish ed I suggest you go down to the bookies. Paddy Power has it 1-8 on there won’t be a UI referendum by 2020; and if and when there is one, 1-7 on to reject a united Ireland. You’re quids in mate, off you go 😉

  • MainlandUlsterman

    This is true. Last figure of 45 per cent include 2-3 per cent non-Irish-Catholics. The Irish Catholic figure has virtually flatlined at around 42-3 per cent since the 1991 census.

    The shrinking of the Protestant percentage isn’t quite what it seems either, masking a cohort of people from Protestant backgrounds not designating as such (we can assume based on where they predominantly live, the shores of Belfast Lough). Real Protestant percentage probably in low to mid 50s.

  • Jollyraj

    “Answer: a rather large number of fantasts will refuse to live peacefully with the new reality.”

    Indeed. As we prepare to commence the second century post-partition, one fears that the rump of gurning Irish Republicans will always be there complaining that we can’t have the euro as our currency.

  • Jollyraj

    “And how will it affect the Unionists if Scotland succeeds in leaving the UK?”

    This is something we may never find out – it looks like the Scots simply don’t want to leave the UK.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Keep the blinkers on – you’ll do less harm that way.

  • Jollyraj

    Indeed. A united Socialist Ireland is clearly very imminent 😀

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Who knows? But an independent Scotland certainly is.

  • Fear Éireannach

    The direction is inevitable, but there are reserves of bigotry there yet, so it might be few more years.

  • Fear Éireannach

    So you are saying that the Fair Employment commission are not competent to conduct their research? What are your qualifications in the matter?

    https://3.bp.blogspot.com/-kRjupI_l2Mw/WIx8UD6hKRI/AAAAAAAAAi8/1PrYHhMnZZMgRlaXFsRmUI9JaZoQCv7vQCLcB/s1600/2017-01-27-14-58-22–1775038336.png

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Not at all – what makes you say that?

  • Jollyraj

    Wouldn’t say certainly, by any means. But it might be.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Well, time will tell. But I’m fervently rooting for it.

  • Fear Éireannach

    The Fair Employment commission have shown growth in the proportion of people from Catholic background in the workforce. They used actual data. You declared there lno growth, where is your data?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    But how is the data inconsistent with what I was saying?

  • rg

    Another failed unionist politician. Who would listen to Kane?