A Year Without Government Series: Part II

This article makes up the second part of a series that takes a satirical look back on the last year and a bit of Northern Irish Politics. The following was written entirely tongue in cheek and none of it should be taken very seriously. Find Part I here.

The Assembly Election Debate

It is a time honoured tradition of the Assembly election cycle that the BBC and UTV bring representatives from the five largest parties into a room together to shout over each other. Even though it had only been a year since we had partially heard what each of the parties had to say the broadcasters decided it would be somehow worthwhile to repeat this process. Maybe if you listen to both the debates, this years and last years, together you’d be able to piece together one whole cohesive thought between the interruptions. I could only bring myself to watch on of the debates so here are my thoughts on the BBC NI leaders’ debate:

This year’s debate was quite different from last year’s. The DUP and Sinn Fein are normally in the position by now that they know they will have to work together and so avoid criticising each other too heavily, this was not the case and they went after each other hard. Both Isolated and having to defend having caused the collapse of Stormont neither held up well.

Foster for the DUP and O’Neill for Sinn Fein floundered at the mercy of Mike Nesbitt for the UUP, Colm Eastwood for the SDLP and Naomi Long for Alliance, not to mention the studio audience asking the questions.

In what seemed like an attempt not to lose her temper Arlene Foster appeared distant and a lacking in any passion towards the issues she was talking about. She even managed to deliver the line “I share their anger, I share their frustration” with no emotion whatsoever.

Sinn Fein’s new leader Michelle O’Neill was showing her lack of practice in public debate with many of her lines coming across as rehearsed and delivered at a million miles an hour. She did however start to show promise while describing Sinn Fein’s aim to represent all people following Arlene’s apparent pledge to offer representation for only the unionist population (good job Arlene, fight those stereotypes). O’Neill also managed to deliver one of the most memorable lines of the night, when challenged by Foster for interrupting and asked “what about a wee bit of respect, Michelle?” her quip back of “what about respecting the public?” received a large applause from the studio audience.

Mike Nesbitt managed to stay largely out of the shouting and interruptions giving him and almost statesman-like aura. Nesbitt’s past in broadcasting makes him occasionally slip into that zone referred to as “too slick”, because we want our politicians to be well spoken but not too well spoken, they might get ideas about being better than us.  

Colm Eastwood gave a reasonably strong performance with the most coherent critique of the RHI scheme but at times seemed to be drawn away from the issues by an apparent need to clarify his nationalist credentials.

Naomi Long for the Alliance Party delivered the stand-out performance of the night with a combination of urgency, passion and competence in her speech. Alternatively she displayed condescension, whining and know-it-all attitude, just depends on who you ask, she’s a bit of a marmite figure. Long held a strong grasp of the facts and was able to run circles round the other leaders at times.  

The first topic addressed was the RHI scandal. Foster hid behind claims that a public inquiry would soon reveal all, failing to give a single comprehensive answer on the topic. Michelle O’Neill seemed to come under the heaviest fire on this issue with the leaders of the smaller parties heckling her over the facts of when Sinn Fein knew about the scheme and when they knew it. Naomi Long’s claim that MLAs were “lied to on the floor of the Assembly” landed hard and Eastwood manged to lump Sinn Fein into equal blame over the issue.

The second issue addressed was cross community transfer votes and Mike Nesbitt backed up his statement from a week previous that he would “transfer for change” while Foster tried to stoke fears that there was a serious risk of Sinn Fein becoming the largest party so it was important to only vote DUP. One of Foster’s strongest moments came when she insisted that her party did have a positive message to offer on jobs and the economy.

Almost everything she went on to say during the rest of the debate however, went back to a more negative tone. In her attempts to stoke fear and sure up the vote against Sinn Fein she repeated the phrase “Radical republican agenda” which warranted a laugh from the audience who seemed to recognise what one audience member pointed out later on: in the event of a Sinn Fein first minister the DUP would still hold a veto from the office of deputy First Minister.

At the time of the debate when ranking each leaders performance a Lucid Talk poll gave Long the win on 28% followed by Eastwood on 21%, O’Neill on 19%, Nesbitt 18% and Foster bringing up the rear on 14%. Considering that this poll managed to put the eventual winner in last place and the loser out of the top five in first we can clearly see that debates are very influential and important and we defiantly need them for every election.

 

Results

As the results began to trickle in throughout Friday evening and through to Saturday Morning one overriding fact became very clear, not much had changed. This is not to say that there were not a few significant shifts and that the reduction of seats in the assembly reducing from 108 t0 90 hadn’t effected the parties in different ways, but despite the extraordinary circumstances of this election the results were not ground-breaking.

Unionism had taken a hit, the combination of RHI sparking a large nationalist turnout and discomfort over Mike Nesbitt’s comment on transferring to the SDLP had meant unionism had lost its overall majority in Stormont. But despite this the political landscape remained largely the same. The DUP were still the largest party and Sinn Fein the second. The gap had closed significantly but this is more likely to have been due to Sinn Fein more effectively getting their vote out rather than an actual swing one way or the other.  

The DUP had basically gotten away with their mishandling of the RHI. It is still unclear whether it was sheer incompetence or malicious intent that drove the DUP in their actions but whatever it was there clearly wasn’t going to be any long term repercussions for them.

I understand that holding Northern Irish politics to the standard of “normal” is wishful thinking but nevertheless in any normal system the string of scandals and mistakes on the part of the DUP, culminating in the RHI debacle, would warrant a far more serious backlash from the electorate than they received. When all is considered unionists should have been breathing a huge sigh of relief when the results came in.

And yet this was not the story that was being told. The media management of the DUP and especially Arlene Foster on results day was shocking. Foster was nowhere to be seen and as the results were being announced, unionism was lacking a leading voice to reassure supporters of their future. The deafening silence of the leaders of both the DUP and UPP was in sharp contrast with the usual strident rhetoric of Northern Irish politics. Both Mike Nesbitt and Arlene Foster refused BBC interviews which left the stage open for the republican leadership to dominate the conversation and dictate the headlines. Why the unionist parties wanted to impose a media ban upon themselves is beyond comprehension.

The circumstances surrounding Mike Nesbitt’s absence later became understandable as it emerged his election strategy had failed and in acknowledgement of this he resigned his leadership of the UUP. In the case of Arlene Foster leader the decision not to appear on camera is one less easy to understand. For after all the DUP won this election. And why would the leader of a party that has just won an election not want to show her face? Foster’s absence allowed election commentators to exaggerate that this was Sinn Fein’s day and the DUP had taken a more serious hit than was really the case. There was a substantial shift in this election towards Sinn Fein but amidst this change there was no unionist leader to remind people that the DUP were returned as the largest party.

This then led to speculation as to the question of Foster’s position within her own party. It was Arlene Foster’s own involvement in the RHI and her own inept response when the issue came to light that led to this election in the first place. Her contributions to the election campaign were equally unhelpful to the party. This included a number of her statements that caused offence to a large proportion of the population and a poor performance in the leaders’ debate.

All of which leaves us to wonder was Arlene more focused on election day on the possibility of her own exit as leader in the face an ever more popular Sinn Fein who have refused to go into government with her. This was a distinct sign of weakness and only exasperated the situation further. Realising that her party is faced between the choice of remaining loyal to her and facing the possibility of returning to direct rule or asking her to step aside in order to retaining their place in the Northern Ireland Executive Foster .

Cracks in loyally were already beginning to show in the DUP with MP Gavin Robinson stating on the topic of Arlene stepping aside “I’m not ruling it out on the basis that if a decision was for Arlene to take and one she made herself then the party would discuss that and consider it”. Or in plain English she no longer has their full support and if needs be they may help her to make her own decision to step aside.

As we now know Foster did not have to resign and the DUPs performance in the general election when everyone had truly forgotten about RHI secured her position, but for a while her leadership and unionism’s tradition dominance did look shaken and not because of particularly awful election result but because of the failure of the DUP to control the conversation.

Finn Purdy is a student from Belfast, currently studying at Trinity College Dublin.