Since January 2017, Northern Ireland has been in a process of debate about bringing down the government, who is to blame and how our politicians are failing the public.
Often I have heard that the fact we have no Executive is seeing failure, which ignores the fact that when we had a devolved administration the constant refrain from most quarters was how it was too populist in its approach and not taking the “difficult decisions” in a whole host of areas from education, culture to health. I have never subscribed to the view that devolution brought no benefits to Northern Ireland, we have seen many positive policies pursued by the governing parties at Stormont bringing in jobs and some new investment in key areas that I believe simply would not have happened under Direct Rule.
However, I do think we need to take one narrative to task, this idea that the public or rather those who are voting do not realise what they’re doing and that there is some great frustration out there at the fact that we have no Executive. I want to call time on that.
Let’s go back to 2012, remember the polls out then from Lucid Talk showing Stormont with an approval rating in single digits? That’s right, the governments of Greece and Ireland had higher approval ratings than our regional administration at the time of their respective IMF bailouts in 2010.
Then we had the various stories during this period about the “Do Nothing” Executive where the Irish News reported between 2011-2013 just 11 bills being passed by the Assembly, by 2015 this had risen to 34 bills in just under five years. The more conservative minded of you would likely regard this as an effective government, doing less. But part of this is also partly down to the occasions where the Executive went for some periods without meeting, even the then First Minister issued comments about the system not being fit for purpose.
But this was partly down to lower turnout? From 2011 onwards the Assembly election turnouts were under 55% and the silent majority of moderates were just sitting at home due to the lack of choice. After all those people who didn’t like the five main parties only had, NI21, NI Conservatives, People Before Profit, The Green Party, Labour Alternative, UKIP, TUV, Workers Party, CISTA & PUP to choose from during the 2011-2016 period.
As Sam McBride pointed out on Nolan Live last night, there was never a surge in the streets to keep this show on the road, there is not even a huge debate amongst the public about reform and renegotiation. A debate which would be well worthwhile having. However, this is being distracted by diversionary issues around coalitions of parties well short of a majority and ways of by passing the DUP/Sinn Fein.
In March, 10% more people turned out to vote than the previous May. In fact, it was the highest turnout in 15 years for a Northern Ireland election. People were motivated and determined to register their opinion. Sinn Fein in one cycle managed to erase 6 years of decline and then some. The DUP despite 4 months of constantly being on the back-foot suffered a mere 1% drop in their vote. Aside from Alliance, no party outside of those two had much to celebrate.
People knew what they were voting for, it wasn’t a blip, nor was it a vote cast out of ignorance. In June, they had their chance to reverse the transaction, but actually doubled down on the decision made in March. These might not be the people who speak up at events or make a point of engaging in various forums but they make their voice heard where it always matters; the ballot box.
There is no solution at the moment in Northern Ireland that can be found without the DUP and Sinn Fein. Those parties are in their powerful positions, not because of some coup they staged (although you could be forgiven at times for thinking this), but because the voters in huge numbers put them there. Any debate that is had trying to exclude either of these parties is a waste of time. The people who are voting for them are not punishing them and there is no appetite from either to make a bold move.
That electoral map of Northern Ireland with Sinn Fein dominant in the West and DUP in the East is where we are at politically at the moment. But if you feel disheartened about that, it’s not something that I will punt that will go away soon. Two big changes happened this year, Nationalists broke away from the devolution project & Unionism lost its majority at Stormont. Both events will have serious consequences for our politics for years to come.
Compounding this is the sense that after 9 years, 7 months of devolved government, little of substance had been achieved. For those saying, we need an Executive to deliver (insert issue here), the bulk of the punters listening think that the words “Executive” & “delivery” are a contradiction in terms. The debate needs to move on to Direct Rule (what form it takes) & reformation & what need mechanisms we can develop to get a functioning Executive back up and running. We need realism & an ability to chart a way forward that won’t crash on the rocks of political reality.
As Dick Tuck famously said “The people have spoken, the bastards” and now we have to find a realistic solution that satisfies the desire of the voters backing the DUP & Sinn Fein, whom whether you like it or not are represent where the bulk of public opinion are for the time being.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs