THE people of Northern Ireland go to the polls on May 5 in what is widely seen as the most important vote since the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. We are once more at a crossroads for this election is likely to deliver Sinn Fein as the largest single party – a result which entitles Irish nationalism to the job as First Minister. Though the Deputy First Minister is equal in status the symbolism is not lost on unionists who fear they are once more facing the last ditch on a road to Dublin. There are those who will exploit this result in pursuit of power. Nationalists will up the pressure on the Secretary of State Brandon Lewis who has the authority to call a border poll, a move which could turbo-charge the campaign for unity on the crude basis of a 50% plus one vote. It is a formula which was rejected by the late Seamus Mallon among others as a recipe for more disruption and disaster. Such a poll is likely to be boycotted by loyalists rendering any result of limited value when assessing the mood of the majority in Northern Ireland. The latest polls in the Republic confirm people are in favour of unity but are not prepared to sacrifice their national anthem and flag to accommodate those who have a British identity in the six counties. They are deeply opposed to higher taxes to cover the cost of integrating another 1.7m people into the state.
If Sinn Féin wins the largest number of seats, unionists are likely to exercise their veto under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement which means a government cannot be formed and we are back to square one again in Stormont’s game of political snakes and ladders with no Executive, no Assembly and no Programme for Government to address health, education, welfare, economic opportunity and the threats of Covid and climate change. There will be 90 members of the Legislative Assembly unable to undertake the jobs they were elected to perform and after six months the slippery ball will pass to a troubled Conservative government at Westminster which has no interest in the Irish Question. Dublin will protest and Dublin will be ignored. The United States and European Union will register concern and the concerns will be noted.
The worst case scenario is a poor result for the moderate nationalists of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and moderate unionists of the Ulster Unionist party. It would confirm the two communities are as polarised as they have ever been and the prospect of meaningful progress is as remote as it was during the dark days of the Troubles. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has already told her followers they are living in the ‘dying days of partition’ and should prepare for unity. Last month she appealed to the EU for support and told diplomats: “Unity is being talked about in every town and city in Ireland, not in aspirational tones but as a realistic, achievable and necessary future.” The hard-line unionist party Traditional Unionist Voice seeks to turn the clock back to the days when nationalists and republicans were excluded from government. Leader Jim Allister told his party conference in November that he will not share power with Sinn Féin: “Let me make it clear, we are not opposed to Catholics in government, or cross-community government, but we most unashamedly are implacably opposed to terrorists in government. Yes, when it comes to government I wouldn’t have a Provo about the place.”
The most hopeful scenario is a significant rise in support for the non-aligned centre parties such as Alliance, Green and People before Profit which could alter the binary nature of our politics and create a mandate for constructive change. All eyes will be upon the voting patterns of the unionist middle classes, what my politics tutor Paul Bew once described as ‘garden centre Prods’, and the thousands of young people who have joined the electoral register in the past five years. It is just possible we have moved on sufficiently from the Troubles to alter what John Hume called the zero-sum game. Voters aged 18 to 24 were born after the ceasefires and have known only peace and rising prosperity. Continued political stagnation is a serious threat to their future.
It is self-evident that the present arrangements are flawed. The power-sharing deal so carefully crafted has collapsed three times in its 24 year history. The mandatory coalition is not working because it can be used by either side to stop politics in its tracks if they do not like the direction of travel. The Petition of Concern, which was devised as a doomsday mechanism to curtail the worst excesses of unionism and nationalism, has been abused and used to stop reasonable proposals which would otherwise have passed through the Assembly and into law. Westminster has been forced to legislate because we could not get the job done by ourselves. The ‘cash-for-ash’ scandal exposed the lack of accountability and brazen attitudes of some Ministers and the petty clientalism which has blighted politics both north and south of the border since partition. However, real change would require rewriting the Good Friday Agreement and the consent of London, Dublin and the majority in Northern Ireland.
I am old enough to remember Prime Minister Terence O’Neill’s ‘crossroads’ speech on television in 1968. He asked my parents’ generation: “What kind of Ulster do you want? A happy and respected province, in good standing with the rest of the United Kingdom? Or a place continually torn apart by riots and demonstrations, regarded by the rest of Britain as a political outcast? As always in a democracy, the choice is yours.”
To my generation it seems our democracy is caught in a time warp. Nothing has really changed since 1912 and the third Home Rule bill when my grandfather shouldered a rifle for the Ulster Volunteer Force.