Something interesting is afoot in Northern Ireland.
Voting turnout is up sharply, at 64.78% the highest since 1998 and Good Friday, for yesterday’s second Assembly election in ten months. (This yielding the hash-tag #votetilliboak–the last a local synonym for the act of retching orally).
We won’t know until Saturday, but for the DUP this cannot be good news.
Voting systems with transfers, of which the north and south are both fond, take fiendishly long to work out. The Brits think we’re unnecessarily complex, it’s polite sometimes to indulge them.
But Nationalist and Alliance turnout appears much higher than Unionist, middle class than working class.
And respectable people are beginning to predict the DUP dropping below twenty-nine.
With thirty members, vitally, you can block legislation you find noxious through a handy Stormont trick called a Petition of Concern. There’ve been 115 of these in the last Assembly term, axing things like same-sex marriage–which actually was backed by a majority of MLAs in November 2015.
If Arlene Foster still breaks into the low thirties, then, as one wag said last night, the Shloer will flow like water at DUP headquarters. Also, in this case, expect Direct Rule in three weeks. (The ‘Vote Arlene, get Theresa’ scenario.)
But if she looks to have come back with fewer than 30 seats, the knives within her party will be out for her, maybe as soon as Monday. (This is the ‘taxi for one for Arlene’ scenario.)
DUP leadership selection processes are always opaque, but begging deputy leader Nigel Dodds back to Belfast North by way of the Chiltern Hundreds would top the runners and riders. (‘He wouldn’t like it, he’s quite happy in Westminster,’ a senior civil servant told me.)
The gormless intransigence of Arlene Foster, as good a political example as any for the Peter principle, may have reversed an electoral slide in nationalism – Sinn Féin and the SDLP managed 36% between them in May 2016 and (crucially, for the Union) haven’t kept pace with demographic growth among Catholics (who are at 40.8%).
An exit poll by Lucid suggested the nationalist parties improved their position by 2-3%, the unionist ones staying the same; while the first returns have suggested SF may have gained 3% with the DUP shedding 2%.
A word cloud of Foster’s speech launching the DUP’s angry, defensive campaign is dominated by two words, ‘Sinn Féin’ and ‘Gerry Adams’. Campaigning ostensibly for the same Union in the IndyRef, Scotland’s Better Together marched in Pride parades and leafleted in Gàidhlig. The DUP really didn’t.
‘If you feed a crocodile, they are going to keep coming back,’ Foster said about giving way on any issues to Sinn Féin in order to form another joint Executive. Cue dozens of people in Northern Ireland yesterday dressing up to vote in crocodile outfits – we’re a country known at least for humour.
It conjures up moral hazard: maximise your turnout by pitching for the hardliners, in the safe certainty that adults from London, Dublin, and Washington will arrive afterwards to patch together a deal with sticking plaster. The ones in London and Dublin are distracted, and in Washington there are no adults.
Never mind too that Sinn Féin actually was led in this election by Michelle O’Neill, blonder and younger and fetching a 72% turnout, up 13%, yesterday in her Mid-Ulster stronghold. She’s such a (refreshingly) new quantity, she was denied entrance to her count today in Ballymena for not having photo id. Just 40, she joined her party after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. If she pips the DUP at the post, it would be O’Neill as First Minister in any executive that forms. Talk about blows to Unionism, not to mention chance of a pro-Remain majority in Stormont.
And if, by the way, anyone was worried just how heavily concerned the rest of the UK was with Northern Ireland, it didn’t even make the headlines on the 10pm BBC News. On the website, it’s the ninth news story; Bruce Forsyth’s chest infection is number three.
Or on Question Time, broadcast last night not from Belfast but Bedford.
If you wanted to chance an errant fiver on the Stormont result, you can’t even do that on Paddy Power, for all love.
This weekend many of us were prepared to write the obits for the Good Friday institutions. But the people of Northern Ireland are turning out to be much more committed to the Good Friday institutions than the politicians they’ve left in charge of them.
Maybe, this weekend, Northern Ireland will surprise us.