It is tempting to suggest that whatever crisis we’re going through is the worst yet. Most of them since the establishment of the new Stormont institutions have been, in one way or another, crises of legitimacy. As is current one over the Protocol.
We may think that the legitimacy of the current institutions derive from the paper documentation of the Belfast Agreement, but in fact it is something that has to be fought over on a day and day, month by month basis.
In 2012 I took some time out of the crisis reporting to lay down some thoughts on what remained valuable about a middle ground that had all but disappeared as loyalists ran the PSNI a merry dance in flying protests all over Belfast.
Back then I wrote that if the middle is the weakest point in any political drama it is also the fulcrum around which any sustainable politics can derive. So our peace settlement was riven around the dealings between moderate SDLP and UUP.
Unionism now finds itself in difficulty not (just) because of how it has dealt with the impossibly disruptive politics of its partner (via the DUP) in government Sinn Féin but how it failed to notice how so many were walking to Alliance.
As Newton Emerson notes, this came to something of a head in the 2019 Westminster election, with…
…the centre-ground parties recording their highest-ever support – Alliance hit 17 per cent in the general election and the Greens took 6 per cent of the council vote in Belfast.
He goes on to observe with regard to the latest polling…
Just as the Alliance surge was not quite what it appeared, its reversal is open to misinterpretation. For decades, Alliance was seen as a liberal de facto unionist and even rather Protestant ‘churchy’ party. There was an extent to which the 2019 surge was driven by this type of voter, expressing frustration with Brexit and the collapse of Stormont.
There is also an extent to which the UUP might be reclaiming these voters under new leader Doug Beattie. The latest LucidTalk poll has Alliance dropping from 16 to 13 per cent and the UUP rising from 12 to 16 per cent.
That still leaves Alliance with 13 per cent of its own type of voter, polling level with the DUP and the SDLP.
Rather than radical centrists, it is more accurate to say Northern Ireland has a radicalised centre. The starting point for this radicalisation was the 2012 flag protests, which saw Alliance representatives attacked. Brexit, the collapse of Stormont and the DUP’s unshifting social conservatism continued the journey for centre-ground parties and voters alike.
Yet falling out with unionism has not made Alliance a nationalist party. It could have had its revenge for the flag protests last month, when Sinn Féin proposed bonfire regulation at Belfast City Council. Instead, Alliance blocked the unworkable republican proposals, with no thanks from either side.
Northern Ireland’s centre ground has been provoked into truly becoming its own side, although others can find this difficult to accept. Increasing nationalist demands for Alliance to take a position on a border poll are similar to nationalism’s ‘false consciousness’ view of unionism – an inability to take another identity seriously. [Emphasis added]
Now, some of what was going on in 2019 was a hard tactical dunt to the DUP for dragging the whole of Northern Ireland into a deeply problematic Brexit process that they apparently had no plan for, and once begun had little control over.
When Naomi won that famous victory over Peter Robinson in East Belfast Brian Walker offhandedly quipped that she could one day be the cross community candidate for First Minister and signal the end of the Assembly designations.
Well, not yet, and judging from Tuesday’s debate one reform, neither Sinn Féin and the DUP are keen to let them play themselves into that game any time soon.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty