Underneath the chaos of the last few months political ground is beginning to shift…

Newton is a great deal more certain than I am that neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP will bring down Stormont before the next scheduled elections. There’s nothing wrong with his logic, it’s just that in the past neither have always conformed to logic.

My own gut feeling is that the overall trend is now heading towards the middle. The DUP is clearly in trouble in North Down which is why their poll topper there has jumped to independent. They’ve always been toxic to liberal unionists and nationalists, but now the move in greater Belfast is heading towards post constitutionalism.

>Donaldson cannot halt that decline by junking institutions that people have finally seen a modicum of value in (through Covid). If the DUP jumps they will get lacerated by Alliance in East Belfast, and it will further underwrite the SDLP’s new cross community dominance in South Belfast.

His only game will be to dial down the rhetoric and get the fixes to the Protocol he needs to credibly claim the DUP got something out of Brexit. Ironically because Ian Jnr’s cunning plan of putting Poots in as revenge against Robinson and all his works has backfired so badly, he’s exposed internally for the poor operator he has always been.

Somewhere in The Prince Machiavelli writes that it’s good to make your position contestable because it draws your enemy out into the open and you can get to measure his otherwise hidden assets. The DUP has had a perfect demonstration of what happens when they jam hard to the right (a lesson they never had to endure under Robinson’s controlling hand).

As for the Border Poll it’s just SF’s placeholder for any real politics in the north. It’s largely nonsense not least because the party keeps asking its political rivals to come up with a plan it still doesn’t have for a UI, but it upsets the unionists so it goes down well with it’s poverty stricken base. A border poll, if it lines up with the data, could be another 30 years away.

The group think that overcredits the border poll story relates to a wide failure to read the census data of 2011 correctly. Most analysis majored on the ephemeral (but in proper context, significant) question of the rise of the Northern Irish identity and the very real drop in the number of people calling themselves Protestant below 50%.

What most failed to notice is that despite a significant majority of Catholics at school age, the overall rise in that demographic was just 1%. That’s because a lot of us who grew up Catholic are bailing out of the social bonds that once kept us at least culturally Catholic and produced simple, and highly tribalised, definitions of what it means to be Irish.

That’s a function of peace.

I have family who had to move out in 1969 because they’d moved to a Protestant majority area with better supply of housing at a better price than the Catholic majority areas they’d been brought up in just a half dozen streets away. But in these 20 years of peace has seen a rising middle class and massive mixing where home ownership is dominant form of housing.

If the demographic growth trend continues as it did between 2001 and 2011 the proportion of the culturally uncommitted should hit 20%. Sure, they’re persuadable of a UI (or indeed continuance of the union), but since they’ve just opted out of the tribal binaries, I don’t believe they’re persuadable on tribal grounds (which is pretty much all that’s currently on offer).

A liberalising southern state takes anxiety down too. It makes small ‘u’ unionists worry less about unity, but outwith a disastrous Brexit there’s no hard appetite amongst their (small ‘c’) catholic mates. That would harden with an actual campaign, but if we are generous and say that the dissenting 20% cuts evenly I’ve always factored in a 10% defection rate.

The SDLP leadership seems to understand some of these dynamics. It’s making headway in places where under the old rules no nationalist party stood a chance in hell of getting votes. It’s doing that by showing its bona fides in a commitment to social change in the near term for all the people of Northern Ireland without constitutional preconditions attached.

The Foyle landslide suggests its appeal is not purely a cross community, liberal reflex. Sinn Féin were the future once. It was tighter, harder working and, in its membership, younger than its rivals. But the mothballing of its northern activities in favour of the national politics of the south has seen it drift in the north with only border poll chatter to fill the void.

Let’s not jump ahead of where we are and claim that unionism is re-aligning since genuine realignment must cut across the whole community for it to bring real change. But something is definitely moving in the undergrowth. After a long era of sham fighting there’s an opportunity for enterprising politicians to make a virtue of alignment and cooperation.

Photo by guvo59 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA