Whoever wears the FM ‘crown’ a rising middle may prize us off NI’s hamster wheel politics

Brian O’Neill (I like to think of him as Slugger’s tabloid editor) has written a sharp and direct piece about how he thinks this has been a boring election campaign. He’s far from the only one.

The sociologist, Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that “those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.”

Useless shadows, indeed.  I cannot think of any non boring election since the “fuss at the bus” when the DUP parked a battle bus outside UUP HQ and harangued them for the TV cameras in 2003. Elections back then were anything but boring.

There’s a couple of reasons for this. One is that once the DUP and SF acquired top tribal dog status in their own communities, they turned down the election drama down to zero and used their scale to snuff out or silence opposition (who had little of their talent for drama).

That was until 2017 when Sinn Fun Féin (temporarily) split the band and turned the volume up on a crocodiles theme got nationalist blood up and bumped Sinn Féin’s vote total to within one seat of the DUP’s. It was effective, but three years later they went back into the same duopoly.

Neither the UUP nor the SDLP can bring itself to play such raw, and ultimately when it comes to the core issue of deciding how Northern Ireland is to be run, hollow populist game playing.

And yet, as Professor Pete Shirlow notes today in his overview of the results of his survey (which took about a week to collate since it asked questions about a lot more than just which way people are voting):

In comparing electoral styles, the DUP is scrambling while Sinn Féin play it ultra-cool. The former rallying, literally, against unionist apathy and the latter applying a ‘steady as she goes’ policy to not provoke voting elsewhere. All of this is above the surface, predictable and anticipated.

For it’s part, Sinn Fein is running the opposite of the 2017 campaign, with their northern leader Michelle O’Neill initially being replaced by Mary Lou McDonald and John Finucane, but latterly replacing local candidates on posters in many of its weaker constituencies.

When you are this close to the prize it makes sense not to frighten the opposition unionist horses for fear of helping your opponents take the prize by stirring the fear pot enough to thwart your own ambitions.

The media story is the “historic” moment an historic SF over takes as top dog has been trailed endlessly, which may explain the unusual amount of foreign press that have landed in Belfast this week.

Very little of the actual boring stuff of democracy is in evidence. Policy, is largely missing, so there’s been little discussion around the practical way in which any party plans to change the future for the better.

As my friend David Hoey and others point out, the leaders’ debates merely provides the rest of us with a snapshot of the tensions within the Executive, and a glimpse at its sheer lack of cohesion.

Given this is the retiring cabinet principals arguing hotly with the future cabinet principals, it must beg a case for the reform of a system that bars 20% of the electorate from deciding the FM or DFM?

Without the dynamism of an official opposition (ie one that is capable of of ‘kicking the bums out’ ), much of what we’re seeing is either an act for the camera or a proposal to negotiate in some extra parliamentary way.

It’s not the case (as is often asserted) that Northern Ireland is a basket case (though in some parts the levels of poverty are little short of catastrophic. Nor is everyone at everyone else’s throats. Shirlow again:

How people vote does not mean they are divided beyond resolution, proven by the post Good Friday Agreement period in which the economy has grown, sectarian crime fallen and people are more likely to mix and form relationships across the identity divide.

Politics, above the surface, does not recognise this and plays in an opposite direction. It does not avail of the opportunity to speak for a people, unified on much, but presents them as perpetually irritated and aggravated with each other.

Foreign journalists in Belfast this week expecting to find turmoil and conflict before the election are likely to to be disappointed. Beyond the core territories of the old paramilitaries it is a newly prosperous space.

The Liverpool surveys suggests that people are converging on a number of important issues. Regarding legacy, no one believes that truth will emerge from their own communities never mind anyone else’s.

A majority support seeking mitigations and easements from the EU regarding the protocol: an issue which pretty much all but the unionist parties have ignored and which is adding to the cost of living crisis.

As Shirlow observes:

Similar levels of support found that 60 per cent of all MLAs voting in agreement was sufficient to demonstrate cross-community support, with an even higher share stating that politics is too sectarian.

In a sense devolution has worked in terms of an underground silent revolution in which collective interest are fusing a people who seek, to paraphrase Seamus Heaney, hope and society rhyming.

The criminologist Matthew Williams notes how our personal histories of conflict, anxiety, loss and trauma shape how we interact with others. We need to recognise false alarms that take a non threat as a real one.

The question is can we deal with the future of Northern Ireland without someone repeatedly banging on the alarm klaxon over border poll fantasies which have no real anchor in reality, or the top dog delusion?

Nearly twenty years ago in A Long Peace we wrote:

Inside the system, the logic of cooperation is strong and will tend to overwhelm and regulate destructive elements. Hunger striker Bobby Sands ran in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election to intensify conflict and foment unrest. But his actions only served to draw Sinn Féin into ‘normal’ politics with unforeseen speed. Importantly, it is not friendly contact that is important, but any contact.

With contact sustained, Northern Ireland has become more peaceful and more at peace with itself. Meanwhile, unionism and nationalism have both declined (albeit at different rates) over those twenty years.

Whatever happens on Thursday it will not result in an end of history. If the DUP take most seats, I’d expect an early return to business. If Sinn Féin do, then expect a longer delay but with a useful shift in perspective.

In either case, we ought to see is some class of parity emerge between nationalism and unionism that has been coming for a long time, but well below the 50/50 levels that might initiate systemic instability.

Unionism hasn’t recovered from the shock of 2017, but nor has it lost to “the other side”, merely to those who are convinced either that: one, the union is not under threat; or two they’ve better things to be doing.

The trend in the ‘neither’ share is consistently upwards regardless of whether it is unionism or nationalism that prospers. And in spite of the much vaunted demographic argument, nationalism hasn’t grown in 20 years.

As Shirlow notes:

Unionism let these people, largely the socially liberal, slip away to non-voting or voting otherwise. It chose to chase those more determined to maintain traditional ways that included opposing marriage equality and the right of women to control their bodies. Pursuing those out of sync with the majority pro-union community who campaign for and support such rights.

Such a process of change is beginning within republicanism and nationalism. Both should be growing due to demographic changes but here we find a quarter of nationalists who will vote Alliance, Green and People Before Profit.

If things do shift it’s because not enough unionists care to vote to keep someone else from becoming First Minister in an office which is every sense power sharing central. It’s a refusal to heed a false alarm.

More and more voters are looking for a purpose and a vision for an evolving future for their kids and grandkids that looks better than the one many of my generation were dragged through backwards.

It may not yet be time to get off the hamster wheel of Peace Process™ politics, but the re-assertion of power and voice in the middle ground will continue to rise regardless of whatever is happening elsewhere.

The question facing the SDLP and UUP is whether they want a piece of that action. That will depend on a willingness to put real options in front of the electorate, and not just a vague wish for something better.

On Friday afternoon (I’ll be in studio for RTÉ) these are exactly the sort of early themes I’ll be looking to see if they emerge, or not. That will tell us much about those parties’ future, and for Northern Ireland at large.

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