I’m Not Running – a play that begs the question of how political movements change in NI?

What if someone from the outside stepped in to lead a party?

That’s the threat at the heart of David Hare’s play I’m Not Running that last night finished its run at the National Theatre in London and was broadcast live to cinemas. (You can catch Gillian Anderson and Lily James in All about Eve on 11 April, Arthur Miller’s secondary school English lesson favourite All My Sons on 14 May and Windrush drama Small Island on 27 June, all from NT Live in the Movie House.)

Pauline Gibson (played by Siân Brooke) jumped from medicine to politics when she stood for Parliament on the single issue of stopping the closure of the hospital she worked in. Now re-elected, her mandate is turning into a country-wide movement, and there is a clamour for the independent MP to run for the vacancy at the top of the Labour party.

Far-fetched? Maybe so. But it’s not like Labour leadership elections follow a predictable pattern!

Her strategically savvy but vocally hapless advisor (Joshua McGuire) steps in front of microphones at the start of the play to inform the press that she’s not a candidate. The waiting reporters – spread out along the sides of the set rather than in a central throng in one of many unusual directorial decisions by Neil Armfield – dissect the precise meaning and potential ambiguity of Gibson’s “not running” before one remembers to ask the more interesting question “Why isn’t she running?”

Jack Gould (Alex Hassell) is her natural opponent for the Labour crown and he’s nervous of the competition. Flashbacks and a clever revolving single-room set reveal her dispassionate relationship with this son of Labour aristocracy, beginning as students in Newcastle, and their subsequent history of hiatus and hook-up.

(Gibson’s argument that Corby has always had its own hospital doesn’t really wash its face for Northern Ireland audiences in the face of Gould’s “fewer but better” rationale for the hospital closures and NHS reform that could have been taken straight out of the Bengoa Report.)

While Siân McGuire can cry on demand and conveys her character’s passion and breadth of public-pleasing wisdom, the director has allowed her vocal dynamic to range from mere shouting to hysterical screeching. The angsty acting certainly keeps the play’s adrenaline running, but an overall calmer presentation of the script might have left the audience less breathless and tight-chested, and left more space to ponder the deeper layers of the drama.

With his character quickly labelled as sexually heavy-handed, Alex Hassell does well to keep Jack Gould from only ever being seen as the villain of the piece. Newbie political activist Meredith Ikeji is played confidently by Amaka Okafor but this potentially rich figure is written out of the action far too soon.

Leaving aside the ridonculous method Gibson employs to secretly be a member of the party and potentially eligible to stand, the play asks a couple of big questions. What kind of leadership does the UK Labour Party need, and why has it shied away from women leaders for so long?

But the question that settled in my mind as I walked out of the screening of the play in the Dublin Road Movie House was one that related to our local politics.

How do political movements change?

If you still believe that devolution is a good thing, then the current malaise either needs amputation or a shot of antibiotic to cure it as the Secretary of State’s soothing balm appears to be a placebo at best and an encouragement to malinger at worst.

Sometimes a whole new structure is created when someone new steps up. Emmanuel Macron emerged from French government cabinet to set up a new political party, win the French presidency in May 2017 and secure a majority in the legislative election the following month.

What would have happened if John Finucane had started a new party rather than align with Sinn Féin?

Basil McCrea and John McAllister stepped outside the UUP but their new political NI21 vehicle caught fire on the hard shoulder and other than one councillor elected in Lisburn & Castlereagh, the movement burnt itself out within two years.

Among David Hare’s more quotable lines of dialogue is this one from Pauline Gibson who is still teetering on the edge of making a decision on whether or not to run:

“It’s scary arousing hope because at once you become the only person who can deliver disappointment.”

Losing as a UCUNF candidate in the 2010 Parliamentary election, and elected as a UUP MLA for Strangford in 2011, Mike Nesbitt was elected leader of the UUP in March 2012. A two year rise to the top where he stayed for five years before handing over to Robin Swann. By the sounds of his comments at last week’s UUP member research book launch of Country Before Party?, Nesbitt recognises the fictional politician’s understanding of hope and disappointment.

Dylan Quinn’s ‘We Deserve Better’ rallies and 90-mile protest walk from Enniskillen to Stormont finally got a small number of people out onto the streets to voice their dissatisfaction with the stasis. But there’s not enough momentum to call it a movement.

While I’d personally love to see a new political movement – or even a fleet of independent candidates – emerge to disrupt the stagnant political swamp and excite people to debate policy and address the kind of inequalities that are documented year after year in the Peace Monitoring Report, I’m pretty certain that the NI21 fiasco either consumed or put off most of those willing to step up and take the risk.

So perhaps change will have to come from within.

The SDLP are taking a risk by partnering with Fianna Fáil and must hope to gain at least as many new second preferences as they’ll lose with the unionist-unfriendly linkup. It’s a slight change of direction, but not one that is likely to affect the food on your plate of the money in your pocket for a long time.

It’s by no means certain, but between RHI, the Local Government elections and general dissatisfaction, it’s possible that the DUP will elect a new leader this year. Arlene Foster was elected by coronation, the only candidate once an already reluctant Nigel Dodds had bowed out assured of the Fermanagh & South Tyrone MLA’s superior voter appeal.

If the position of DUP leader did become vacant and was contested, any potential leader would be drawn from the group of 38 people who would elect them (the party’s 27 MLAs, 10 MPs and its one MEP).

[Neil Matthews mentioned in a 2015 Soapbox article that the some senior figures felt that the membership “is becoming (or will become) increasingly disgruntled with the ‘top-down’ organisational culture within the party”, though Matthews argues that “the larger and wider a selectorate … the less likely it is that the final result will be representative”.]

Could any of these names that are whispered – Donaldson, Hamilton, Poots and Wilson – overcome the inertia of Brexit (an unpredictable process that will continue to offer instability for many years) and internally sell to their fellow elected representatives the logic and necessity of bring back local accountability, budgeting and delivery of public services to a restored Executive and Assembly? Could any of them argue that Northern Ireland needs to prove that it can work in the face of growing calls for more serious consideration of a border poll and an all-island solution? Could a more left-field name emerge? (There are only a few I can think off.)

David Hare’s fictional possibility of parachuting a popular – or populist – figure into the top position in a political party seems far-fetched, even for Labour. But it does make you wonder what else would need to happen in order to make Northern Irish politics be capable of saying “I’m running” once more?

Photo credit: Mark Douet (National Theatre)

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