The votes are counted, most of them five or more times by now.
Let’s not bury the lead. Sinn Féin has just done something that looked unimaginable ten years ago: it has, within two and a half years, won a plurality of votes in an Irish general election and followed this up with a plurality of votes and seats in a Northern Irish Assembly election.
The world’s media is behaving a lot like someone tipped them off to this possibility. You can find videos of Al Jazeera airing interviews from Gerry Kelly and Edwin Poots (separately). The New York Times presented some nuanced analysis, but beneath the headline “Northern Ireland Turns to Sinn Féin”. It’s natural for Northern Ireland to be painted in broad brushstrokes for an international audience. This kind of coverage can be irritating if you’re someone whose party has just experienced marginal losses in an election which is now being interpreted in epochal terms, or if you’re just a stickler for detail and pronunciation.
Having married an American, I have some practice at trying to explain the configuration of our part of the world to American family members, though I don’t know if that practice has helped me refine the skill. People not from here tend to want to know about a few big ideas: Are Catholics equal now? Will there ever be fighting again? Would they need a special visa to drive from Dublin to Belfast, or do I need a worker’s permit because I’m from Dublin? They laugh when I put on a Belfast accent, not because it’s accurate, but because it hadn’t occurred to them that a place as small as this would have different accents, or that Liam Neeson sounds any way distinct from Colin Farrell.
I’ve eventually concluded that, rather than try and assertively outline complex voting trends, or list Northern Ireland’s residual flaws, segregated realities and profound social deprivation, maybe I can learn more by hearing those outside perceptions and appreciating how this place looks from afar. To echo Brian O’Neill’s observation, it looks beautiful and dramatic, or as one friend overheard a visitor say, ‘like a giant screensaver’ (and in that sense, contiguous with the rest of the island). It also looks like a political success, the settled outcome of a peace process every region of conflict should wish to emulate.
So what do we know that lies beneath the breathless headlines? Sinn Féin shot a level par round on a blustery final day when others were dropping shots and Alliance were on a Rory McIlroy-style charge. But ultimately nobody else came close. Their main proposal? Let’s spend some British Treasury money round here already. That, and the First Minister thing, which does nothing but confuse me. It clearly doesn’t matter. It’s a joint office. But it does matter, because of the symbolic resonance? But it was British unionists who argued for the symbolic resonance, giving it more symbolic resonance. That then prompted a response from Irish nationalists, seemingly hastening the outcome unionists warned of. So now it does matter, apparently, even though it clearly still doesn’t. Sam McBride suggested that all this change amounts to is Michelle O’Neill scrubbing the word Deputy off her office door, and that got me wondering for at least five whole minutes about whether the two parties would actually swap physical offices, or signs, or where exactly all of Michelle O’Neill’s paperclips have been since she formally lost the office in February when Paul Givan resigned/was resigned. But of course, having helped bring the outcome they warned of into reality, does the DUP now want a second election where it can run on a slogan of “See?! Told ya!”?
The one Sinn Féin masterstroke for my money was removing the Irish language from the election almost a year ago by agreeing to direct rule implementation. As a group, Irish speakers deserve protection just as many do. But as a wedge issue, Acht na Gaeilge winds everyone else up, looks like a big fuss over little enough, and ends up being an own goal as it’s been so long promised and still isn’t in force. Now it would be a supreme irony if tomorrow’s Queen’s speech had more in it for Irish speakers than for Protocol protesters, but all the more reason to keep it off the ballot.
Because there’s enough on the ballots as is. As a populus, we are the world’s PR-STV ultra fanatics. We love it so much that we make a weekend of it, decimal places and all. Randomly chosen surpluses don’t cut it here. Once someone’s in over the quota, we count them all back up again, slice ‘em, dice ‘em and see where they go. Five years ago, my friend introduced me to the phrase “vote til you boke”, i.e. keep on ranking until you’re left with one blank space and then resist the temptation to draw an upside down smiley face with x’s for eyes into that box. The phrase must have gained unheralded popularity in the meantime, as I wasn’t expecting to hear the Reverend Cheryl Maban repeating the “vote til you boke” mantra on Good Morning Ulster’s “Thought for the Day”. By a million miles my favourite election preview was Sam Millar’s profile for Slugger of the Lough Neagh constituency and the eventual election of Brown-Eyed Gull. It still makes for good reading today. Vote til you… regurgitate?
Transfers were clearly a big part of the story – not just the Mervyn Storey story, though the Storey chapter is illustrative. In that case, Patricia O’Lynn’s pile of Alliance votes in North Antrim swelled from 4,810 first preferences to a sub-quota total of 8023.4. Meanwhile, Storey began almost two thousand first preferences ahead of O’Lynn on 6747, but would amass, between the surpluses of Robin Swann, Jim Allister and Philip McGuigan (SF) and the elimination of the SDLP, the Green Party and the Allister’s TUV running mate Matthew Armstrong, just 988 votes’ worth of transfers, leaving him stuck behind O’Lynn and his fellow DUP candidate Paul Frew on the final count. It was an outlier constituency in having two TUV candidates, but it’s an important indication that while some are happy to tot up DUP and TUV votes into big pile and say it’s almost the same as Sinn Féin’s return, the voters themselves in those piles haven’t been consistently showing sympathy with one other and carrying on down the ballot. And that’s before you go back a stage and consider how the TUV bringing out new voters raises the quota, but their refusal to transfer helps bring about more sub-quota ‘last person standing’ outcomes.
One of those last people standing was in South Belfast where I live and where the Alliance Party performed possibly its most audacious flex, running two candidates and taking a seat from a popular party leader. Here, two of the five incumbents were co-opted MLAs, while Edwin Poots stood following the sad passing of his friend and party colleague Christopher Stalford. Somehow with all of this churn, we ended up with a corresponding outcome to 2017 in having elected more women than men (two Alliance plus SF’s Deirdre Hargey). The SDLP continues to chase its Westminster support levels achieved by Claire Hanna and previously by Alisdair McDonnell here, but overlaying First Past the Post elections on top of a system where clearly voters think freely about their transfers increasingly looks to be an apples divided by pineapples-type calculation. It’s notable that although transfers from Elsie Treanor brought Matthew O’Toole over the line, 15% of her transfers went to the Alliance and another 5% to Claire Bailey and the Greens. What also seems clear is that the risk of standing aside in Westminster elections, as Bailey did in South Belfast and SDLP did in North Belfast, is that you interrupt your own sense of progress in an area and people’s habit of giving you their vote.
Alliance doubling its representation (plus one for luck) in undoubtedly the big story. I haven’t heard much public consideration of the extent to which any vote in the new Assembly will now depend on Alliance support to have a chance of passage. Similarly, an Executive room with two Alliance votes is a completely different room. Even putting aside designations and petitions of concern, you have to win votes to make laws and now no party nor designation can win one without convincing the non-aligned block and providing assurance to the huge section of the community it represents.
Jim Allister. Discuss. Vote-getting machine? One-man symphony? Lover of limelight? Successful populist? (Even without copycatting Trumpian ‘Drain the Swamp’-type slogans – I mean it’s up on a hill Jim, come on, that’s the one thing people know about Stormont). If Jim Allister could have rank-choice voted between returning seven TUV MLAs, two MLAs or just himself, are we 100% sure he’d have voted in that order? He spoke on TV in the voice of a man with an increased mandate and yet there he was, unmistakably just the one individual. In many parts of the world, a party leader who had just returned just one successful candidate, an incumbent, themselves, despite increasing their vote share in a system of proportional representation, might be under more pressure from their party than, say, one returning with nine seats. But we’re not anywhere else in the world, and I’m sure Jim Allister will remind me of that if ever we meet.
Allister did claim some shaky common ground with the Alliance Party when repeating his demand for an end to mandatory coalition. In the BBC studio Gavin Robinson reminded folks that the DUP formally favours voluntary coalition and has had a document outlining that policy since 2004. Here’s the thing though. Actually, two things. First, while Robinson echoes Allister’s line that a voluntary coalition should bring together parties who “want Northern Ireland to work”, in that moment he may have missed the point that was being made around him, namely that Sinn Féin and Alliance were elected with a ‘get back to work and get on with it’ mandate and that the most obvious obstacle which a voluntary coalition system might avoid would be the DUP, not Sinn Féin.
The other thing. In 2004, the DUP had just become the largest party in the Assembly, increasing its seats by 50%. The moment at which the institutions would resume their functions became a matter for them. If you’re in a rugby scrum that’s going forward and it collapses, the referee usually rewards you. Opposite applies if you’re going backwards. So the DUP could make visible plays of inviting the SDLP to form a voluntary coalition in 2004. It could claim a mandate to refuse to share power with Sinn Féin. This is the other thing that confuses me about the First Minister thing. By not actually answering the question about a Sinn Féin First Minister, they can’t actually claim that same mandate, except in specific relation to the NI Protocol. Though that does remind me of the shifting criteria they applied in the run-up to St Andrews: decommissioning, photographed decommissioning, disbandment, sackcloth and ashes.
Last time I wrote about NI politics on Slugger, I pointed out that Edwin Poots’ then proposition to become DUP leader and decline the First Minister role signified, if not a reversal of the ‘Protest to Power’ route to which John Tonge and colleagues’ book title refers, then a method of achieving both. That obviously played out in an unexpectedly dramatic way, but here we are a year later with a different DUP leader, a similar set of problems and a less favourable set of numbers. Protest or power. With the energies of protest crystallising around others, is it time the DUP owned power as most immediate means to deliver anything other than slogans to their supporters, as well as those who took a break from voting for them?
Maybe one of the hopes that could lead the DUP to favour a second election is that the now manifested outcome of a popular vote winning Sinn Féin would help bring about more of the ever-elusive Unionist unity. One of the reasons I find our elections so consumable since (my house is spotless from my walking about with the radio coverage playing) is that a lot of tired people are asked to say a lot of words, often while other words come through their ears simultaneously. They tend to drop a lot of the soundbitery and just talk. Though they’re also prone to the odd verbal slip-up. Tom Elliot was asked on Saturday to react to Jeffery Donaldson’s analysis that unionism can’t afford divisions. He didn’t reject it out of hand and suggested they might consider it “if Jeffery’s offering a fig leaf”. Now he meant to say “olive branch”. Clearly he meant to say “olive branch”. These old testament references can be easily mixed up. Still, at that exact moment, what did he and his party want most? Maybe sleep is the safest guess.