After the European election – zombie or real life, who knows? – we’re in the even odder position of politics in Northern Ireland looking ever so slightly healthier than the politics of the UK as a whole. I compare NI with “UK” rather than “GB” because the Westminster scene presents the DUP with tough choices I’ll come to later. While I haven’t heard a cheep from the Stormont talks as they (presumably) prepare to resume, the Alliance surge in both elections dares to raise cautious hopes of an emerging centre ground, long derided by partisans on either side. This is not a piece of fantasy based on hopes for a rise in the Other vote to 30% of the vote or anything like it, but a centre ground of opinion across a slightly blurring sectarian divide which is starting to look anachronistic. It was telling I thought that the DUP and Sinn Fein greeted the Alliance successes with respect rather than the usual contempt.
We’re talking about margins here, not massive but distinct and possibly growing. While the DUP and Sinn Fein remain fundamentally secure, voters have detached quite big chips from the blocs. With Alliance as an experienced catalyst, this should provide a spur towards a Stormont agreement and pressure in favour of cross community support for a whole range of issues blighted by sectarian struggle.
Modest encouragement came too from the SDLP holding its own while tacking towards an Alliance position – easier admittedly when the issue was Remain. But the general tone was encouraging. And note the return of Alliance in Derry after forty years, like salmon to the Foyle. The basic lesson for the UUP is surely no longer to compete with the DUP on the right. Leave that to TUV. Develop a vision of unionism that the middle ground in GB would recognise and learn to score on practical grass roots rather than traditional identity issues. Contemplating merger with the DUP would be a category mistake. It would restrict unionist choice on the margins which are becoming increasingly important as the demographic gap closes.
However dominant the two main parties in the Executive, the electoral system offers minor parties many hedges against obliteration provided they can stakeout coherent positions and set aside past glories . The Alliance successes show that even when the structure is biased against them, decline is not inevitable.
If the DUP and Sinn Fein are looking for a cue to settle, the election trend should help. Alliance and the SDLP should now craft careful solutions to the sticking points and be heeded more now.
The implications for the structures of local politics are far from clear. Scrapping the designations for Assembly voting might require a sea change of a further 10% which seems unattainable; replacing them altogether with a weighted majority for Executive formation as well, even more so. But at what level of vote support would it start to matter? We can at least begin to think the previously unthinkable. The immediate lesson for all the parties looks that bit more realistic today, that they’ll come closer to their nirvanas if they work together.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London