One year ago today, Martin McGuinness brought the curtain down on his time as Deputy First Minister and the near 10 year run of devolution in Northern Ireland. The rest is now history……
We have had two historic election results with awesome consequences. In March, Nationalism finally broke a 6 year trend of seeing their combined vote go down. Sinn Fein surged riding a wave created by the approach of the DUP towards issues such as the Irish Language and a rallying cause for their base that had been lacking for a number of years. Looking back the campaign was merely the 2003 in reverse, it was Sinn Fein now demanding a fair deal & a revisit of issues that had not been properly dealt with. I know it’s a slogan often used but “No return to the status quo” is simply a repetition of what Sinn Fein are hearing back from their voters.
For the DUP, the Assembly election was a set back. Arlene Foster had performed poorly during the campaign, looking rattled in debates and failing to say much else other than “Radical Republican Agenda” over and over again. But more importantly for the first time in the history of an Assembly election, Unionism lost its majority and the DUP went backwards in the number of seats they held. Had just 1 more seat changed hands, they would have been tied with Sinn Fein for the first time.
A near death experience for the DUP did help reinforce a narrative for their voters that political dominance cannot be taken for granted. Luckily, the General Election came just three months later & the party stormed to victory. Most DUPers see the June result as a correction of the March result and with the balance of power position at Westminster, they are happy for the time being to highlight their influence.
Where do we go now?
I know it’s in vogue for parts of Northern Ireland society to think that our political situation stems simply from backward looking politicians. However, it’s important to remember that in a democracy with high turnout that the people are endorsing the DUP and Sinn Fein stances. These two parties commanded 56% of the vote in March and over 65% in June which was a sizeable increase on the previous election.
We are here, because the voters put us here. Do you know why there was no protect outside Stormont this evening or any petitions doing the rounds to get Stormont back up, because they wouldn’t attract very much support. Northern Ireland is not North Korea, politicians react to the public mood. Sinn Fein recognised in 2016 that they were being perceived as weak & acted accordingly, the DUP recognised that voters didn’t like aspects of their approach in March and they acted accordingly.
This may sound like I am being overly pessimistic, but crossing your fingers isn’t a strategy, nor is expecting two parties who don’t trust each other to last the distance in government. The cries of “we need an Executive” fundamentally fail to grasp the fact that the key word that is missing from that sentence is “functioning”. Whilst any sort of Executive might suit for cutting ribbons at events or posing with big foam numbers. For me, I’d like one that can actually, you know, govern the place. The reason why, nobody is organising a “Devolution Now” protest is that for many sections of our society, they didn’t think the original incarnation was doing very much.
I regularly wrote that the last devolved administration was failing in policy-making terms, well now is the time to actually correct some of these mistakes. I mean reform of the Petition of Concern, roles of committees, election of the Speaker and the other procedural issues that can improve our daily governance. If we start to tackle some of these issues, we can get an agreement that can last, not one that will crash on the rocks of Northern Ireland political realities.
We don’t have an Ian Paisley or Martin McGuinness this time to really make these big leaps if something falls short halfway through. That’s why it’s really important that we take the time to get this right. Back in 2007, the DUP ran on that very slogan & it’s something that we need to do now.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs