Five Thoughts on AE17: The Nationalist Surge & why we’ve all good reason to rejoice at the dawning of the Age of the Minorities

The Nationalist Surge has dramatically altered the composition of the Northern Ireland Assembly, whilst also prompting many questions and challenges to both Nationalists and Unionists.

Below I have listed five things which can be taken from the election results.

1.  The surging nationalist turnout, and within that the unprecedented support for Sinn Fein from within northern nationalism, needs properly understood.

Nationalists were already of the opinion that the pendulum had swung too far in unionism’s favour at Stormont before the RHI scandal unfolded.

This was a vote against blinking first too many times.

A vote against being seen to be playing second fiddle within the Executive and Assembly to the DUP.

It has implications not just for the necessity of Sinn Fein not returning to devolution until those outstanding commitments from previous negotiations are delivered upon, but also for key decisions that will need to be made in the early phase of forming a new Executive.

Sinn Fein’s walkout from talks with the British Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, today was serving notice that they don’t intend on participating on discussions with regards to The Past and its legacy under the pretence that the British Government are arbitrators instead of protagonists.

Regardless of whether or not the smaller parties opt into the Executive this time, it is very difficult to see Sinn Fein blinking and conceding to Claire Sugden returning as a Justice Minister just because the DUP have ruled out a nationalist holding that post.

2. Sinn Fein must be wary of rushing back into Stormont.

The same Nationalist electorate which delivered such a powerful verdict last week made a very different statement just ten months ago which needs to be understood and acted upon by the Sinn Fein leadership.

Last May’s poor electoral performance by Sinn Fein and the SDLP was due to nationalists concluding that the devolution era was failing to deliver, a reflection of the collective sense that the DUP were setting and controlling the agenda at Stormont and that republicans did not seem to have the capacity to match the DUP.

Sinn Fein are in the middle of a transition process, which is changing the face and profile of its tier of elected representatives. But the changes that may be required to effectively address the shortcomings that led to a period of prolonged nationalist discontentment, manifesting itself in declining turnout at successive elections during the post-St Andrew’s devolution era, relate more to how the party is organised and the internal priorities set by the leadership. Accepting the need to sharpen its performance in the Executive and legislature requires measures to attract and retain personnel bringing skills and experience to support and bring forward their legislative and broader political agenda. That will come at the price of relieving others of their roles and responsibilities.

On Sunday Politics this week, Pete Shirlow made the right point, which I have written about extensively on Slugger over recent years, when he noted of the surging nationalist turnout:  “That vote was always there. It just needed something to bring it out.”

That is a lesson for not just Arlene Foster and the DUP, but also Sinn Fein. Their failure to bring that vote out over the past decade must not be missed.

That lesson still needs to be learnt.

3. Forget the Border Poll clamour: this is the time to lay the strong foundations from which the vision of Irish unity can become something tangible, graduating from the abstract to the concrete.

I suspect that the primary objective of the republican campaign for a Border Poll in recent years was to reawaken a nationalist electorate that had shown worrying signs of disconnectedness as the DUP-Sinn Fein led Executive became more firmly established.

Alas, the results of this Assembly election removes the need to genuinely pursue a poll that was, in any event, unlikely to be approved by the British Government.

The momentum provided by this election result should not carry republicans back to the Hail Mary Pass politics of clamouring for a Border Poll which simply can’t be won in the short-term. The pull of the millenarian instinct can be all too strong within Irish nationalism and discourages investing time and energy developing the type of medium and longer term strategic plans informed by short term substantive policies that must be the imperative for pro-Unity advocates now.

Republicans would do better to capitalise on the momentum by seizing the initiative and seeking to shape discussions on the long term future of the island. It is time for pro-Unity parties to show exactly what the vision looks like in real, concrete terms.

There is a need to illustrate, in words and deeds, precisely how Irish unity can be achieved. Retaining the state of Northern Ireland in a jurisdictional sense, with some degree of powers, to demonstrate a commitment to the Good Friday Agreement principles is something republicans are clearly contemplating, as illustrated by some of the proposals floated in the party’s recently published document on Irish Unity (discussed in a Slugger article in December 2016 here.)

Specific measures demonstrating to Unionists in a paying it forward manner could be developed seeking to enshrine in the Irish Constitution certain rights and guarantees for the British and Unionist population in the event of Irish unity, whilst a comprehensive strategy to address concerns about the economy, health provision and the British subvention provided to the North must be tackled head on and not wished away.

There are implications for Sinn Fein’s approach towards participation in a coalition government in Dublin. Whilst party figures are acutely aware of the sorry plight of minor parties in earlier coalition governments, the temptation to make that leap and finally be in a position to dictate government strategy in a manner that can help shape and advance a Unity strategy must be increasingly hard to resist.

Far from being incompatible, the objective of Making Ireland work and Making Northern Ireland work simultaneously must be viewed as essential to the realisation of the republican objective of Irish unity. Indeed, this is the only viable road to Unity and is entirely consistent with republican strategy since 1998.

Brexit provides an opportunity to engage with an increasingly attentive Southern audience and generate support for a Unity project requiring much work to be done, North and South, to create the conditions within which a referendum could deliver a Yes vote.

This election result should not encourage the view that there are any shortcuts. Unity will still come dropping slow, but that is something nationalists should be quite content with at this time.

4. Whilst it is not an outstanding issue to be resolved from previous negotiations, the unprecedented election results delivered this time makes the matter of the designations provided to the Executive Office Ministers a very relevant issue.

Sinn Fein representatives like to refer to ‘Joint First Ministers’ precisely because both they and the DUP know that the erroneous perception of seniority derived from the First Minister/ deputy First Minister distinction is something that feeds into a superiority complex within unionism that the DUP still clings to.

The problem for the DUP now is that it is entirely possible that subsequent elections could deliver a Sinn Fein First Minister. In that event, the DUP would be forced to either walk from government or suffer the humbling experience of serving in the deputy First Minister capacity alongside Sinn Fein.

Failing to prepare the unionist electorate for that could mean that unionism suffers a psychological blow if and when that happens which could be entirely avoided were the DUP to agree that the terms were neutralised in advance to reflect the reality of their shared and equal stature.

5. The call for All Orange hands to the pump’ will doubtlessly be made and heard far and wide in coming days.

‘Twas ever thus within unionism.

Thinking unionists will know that it is precisely the opposite course of action to that which is required for those supportive of maintaining the Union with Britain. The main lesson of this election for unionists is that the demographic clock they hoped had stalled is very much ticking.

Unionism needs an accommodation strategy for the culturally Irish to stem history’s tide.

Coming to terms with, and finding a place within the unionist vision, for the Irish language, GAA and even place of the Irish National Flag are just a few of the previously inconceivable challenges that face a unionism fighting for its survival in the next generation.

There is a salient lesson in that for nationalists and republicans as they collectively bask in the glory of a watershed election which relegated unionism alongside nationalism to minority status.

The need to acknowledge and respect unionism’s mandate in the north of Ireland is essential now and will remain so in the future. Equality and integrity as political themes lose their value when not universally applied.

In the post-St Andrew’s era of all-in power-sharing, Martin McGuinness developed a peerless appreciation of the need to consider outreach and its inherent respect for the Other before speaking and acting as Deputy First Minister during his tenure in the post. Michelle O’Neill, and her colleagues, must learn from him and not stray from his approach.

For many years now, all strands of nationalist/republican thinking have implicitly accepted that Irish unity would only be realised through the ballot box. As the minority community, that poses the challenge to become persuaders for Unity- no mean feat, given that constitutional preferences are so tightly aligned to religious affiliations and National identities stretching back centuries in this part of Ireland.

I have never bought into the idea that unionists would or could be persuaded to join a united Ireland quite simply because all of the empirical evidence from the experience of Irish nationalists within the Union illustrates that persuasion is not only not required but actually misrepresents the nature of our existence within a Northern Irish state under British sovereignty.

Irish unity, like the continued existence of the Union with Britain, will require accommodation, not persuasion.

Understanding the distinction is crucial to developing an appreciation of the strategic thinking that is likely to evolve within both unionism and Irish nationalism/ republicanism as the demographic realities of an ever greening Northern Ireland become apparent in the years to come.

Ironically, this should be a cause for great optimism in our society.

The Nationalist Surge has finally moved our society beyond majoritarian politics.

The challenge for the respective minority voices pursuing competing constitutional outcomes will be to articulate visions informed by substantive actions and words capable of demonstrating a genuine willingness and capacity to accommodate all of The Others.

Wagon circling won’t do that.

To paraphrase David from yesterday, it’s about building a bigger tent, and making room in the tent for all.