Belfast Child

img_7764There’s so much to say about the election in the north of Ireland last week that it’s hard to know where to begin.

But we should probably start by talking about the fact that the Conservative party got 0.3%. Because, I mean, it’s kind of hilarious. The party of government, the party which claims to represent all of the unions represented by that solitary ‘U’ in UK, the party whose leader was, as the votes were counted, standing on a stage in Glasgow talking about how much she cares about her beloved United Kingdom – this party understands that union so little that it can’t even muster a measly third of a percentage point in one of its four nations.

We could talk about the fate of the SDLP, who effectively ended their long-term slump, aided by a young leader and the transfers from the Kamikaze Ulster Unionists. Oh, yes, and that means we need to talk a little first about the election system: Single Transferable Vote, where you rank candidates in order of preference, and once your preferred person is elected or knocked out, your vote, or the portion of it your woman didn’t need, is passed on to the next person on your list. That’s key.

But back to poor Mike Nesbit. As leader of the more moderate of the Unionist parties, he had said that his second preference would be going to the centre-leftish nationalist SDLP, Labour’s sister. Many unionists didn’t take this anti-sectarian stand well, and the UUP suffered, perhaps partly as a result (though they are in long term decline). But it does seem that those who stuck with the struggling party were more likely to direct their second preferences across the traditional community fault line than they have been in the past. Whether this happened because of Nesbitt’s leadership, or because of a general disgust with the dominant unionist party, the scandal-ridden DUP, it was one of the things which drove the ultimate, remarkable result.

Then there are the smaller parties: the SWP front People Before Profit took a beating for their pro-Brexit stand. Leaving the EU is deeply unpopular in the Nationalist areas where they made their two break-throughs back in May. That, combined with the reduction of constituencies from six to five representatives each, cost the left party its seat in Derry and meant that they only just held on in West Belfast, alongside an astonishing four Sinn Fein reps. And there’s the Traditional Unionist Voice: the BNP to the DUP’s UKIP. Their one rep, the working-class-Loyalist-come-QC Jim Allister, kept his seat despite the less proportional system.

img_7782Steven Agnew, Northern Irish Green Party leader retained his place in North Down as did Green deputy leader and feminist activist Clare Bailey in South Belfast, who was first elected in May, and kept huge numbers of people up as we waited nervously for her eventual re-election as the final MLA in the small hours of Saturday morning, with the #awakeforbailey hashtag trending across the UK. Breaching both Green and Northern Irish stereotypes, the two politicians come from working class backgrounds on either side of the traditional divide, and their re-election became a focus for Greens across these islands, with delegations of canvassers arriving from Scotland the two weekends before the vote. It turns out it’s possible to believe in both independence and solidarity.

The Lib Dem’s sister party, Alliance, had a good night too, with their vote going up by 2.1% and maintaining eight seats, despite the overall reduction. Their leader, Naomi Long – who held East Belfast in Westminster for a five year period which included seeing her office bombed by Loyalists – provided a charismatic front for centrist voters wishing to reject sectarian history and DUP murk.

And we should pause a moment to note the failures, because they tell important stories too: alongside the Tories’ pathetic attempts to break into Northern Ireland since their bust-up with the Ulster Unionists after the 2010 election, there is UKIP, who won an Assembly Member from a defection just a few years back, but only got 0.2%. There is the Progressive Unionist Party; the only ever serious attempt at building a left wing party for working class Loyalists to vote for. It too once had Assembly members, but it lies in ruins and won only 0.7%. The attempts of its former leader and MLA Dawn Purvis to lure it away from the dark world of its paramilitary UVF roots seem to have failed, and the iconic feminist socialist is these days reputed to back the Greens’ Clare Bailey.

Likewise, we need to mention turnout, which rose by an extraordinary 9.8% since the May election: in part a Brexit bounce, in part, a tighter election than ever before, and in part, a clear sign that voter cynicism is evaporating.

img_7793All of these events are vital context. But the headline figures are the headlines for a reason. Sinn Fein did astonishingly well, and came within one seat of being the largest party. Their campaign, with posters calling for “equality now” and “respect for all: equal marriage now” as well as demanding an Irish language act to bring parity of linguistic esteem, seemed to take them back to the 1960s strategy of wrapping up Catholic oppression with other minority oppressions and attempting to build solidarity across them. Their new leader in the North, the 40 year old Michelle O’Neill, doesn’t bring with her the IRA baggage of her predecessors – and nor do many younger voters. The party’s famous network of organisers seem as energised and disciplined as ever, and they turned out their vote by the fistful.

The Democratic Unionist party, on the other hand, took a battering. Having dominated Northern Ireland since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the party retained its plurality by only one seat, and watched as a series of their most prominent politicians went the way of Douglas Alexander. In part, of course, this was the result of recent events: the trigger of the vote was the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, where half a billion or so of subsidies were pumped into a scheme through which those in the know could profit from burning wood-chips in barns and in chicken sheds and the like. At best this was gross incompetence which left a vast bill for a small place. And, worse, endless rumours about who was told how to profit from the scheme, and where the cash ended up, only played into a broad belief among many voters that the party of Ian Paisley has lost its moral compass since the reverend died.

It wasn’t just about so-called ‘cash for ash’ though. Brexit mobilised thousands of new voters to turn out (more, in fact, than the referendum itself). The series of articles that Peter Geoghegan and I wrote for openDemocracy about the secret donor who gave the party £425,000 to campaign for Brexit had, I like to think, some impact as journalists in Northern Ireland ably harried them on the provenance of the cash, and the party responded with the entertaining incompetence of a slapstick artist who trips and then trashes the room in an attempt not to fall over. First minister Arlene Foster’s embarrassing performances in the TV debates, which had higher audiences than their equivalents back in May, will have made many normally loyal Loyalists squirm, and perhaps encouraged a few to find alternative activities on voting day.

But there’s an longer term story too. When knocking on doors with the Northern Irish Greens in the working class Loyalist Cluan Place back in 2015, I got a distinct whiff I recognised from a decade earlier. It felt remarkably like canvassing in Labour voting council estates in Scotland’s central belt in the mid-noughties. Person after person would spend five minutes listing the failures of the Democratic Unionist party, describing their horror at their representative’s support for cuts to local services and failures to deliver for the area. When talking about the sectarian divisions, they would say things like ‘we need to move on from all of that’. But they’d conclude that they would have to vote DUP despite everything. It was their history, after all. As with Scottish Labour, such a position probably isn’t sustainable.

c6ubwh4xqaaun4fIn part, therefore, the decline of the DUP is, like the decline of Scottish Labour, not only a product of its own failures, though in both cases there are plenty. Ultimately, the parties both find themselves tied by their unionism to a British state which has had little economic strategy since the loss of its empire, beyond high finance and endless rounds of asset-stripping privatisation. Where Sinn Fein, like the SNP, have had to accept cuts to the block grant from Westminster, their voters see them as standing up against that austerity, as implementing it under protest. The DUP, on the other hand, are bound into ideological support for a British state which is hammering their working class base. And that’s a very difficult position to maintain for long – particularly if you combine it with conservative social values which only win majorities among those demographics that are gradually dying off, and support for a Brexit nationalism destined to do disastrous damage to the place over which you govern.

Likewise, that same austerity is fraying the fabric of support for the Union more specifically. I also spent a day wandering round Belfast in the weeks before Scotland’s referendum in 2014, talking to people about the question at hand. Though I asked about Scotland, they always answered for Ireland. And what numerous people there told me (and this is borne out in the polls) was that, though they came from a Catholic background and would see themselves as nationalists, they would in fact vote to remain in the UK were there a border poll the next day. Leaving the UK for Ireland would mean leaving the NHS, and social security, and the greater subsidies which the larger (if poorer per capita) UK can manage more easily than Ireland could. As Britain’s health service frays, job seekers find themselves sanctioned, and voters are forced to choose between EU subsidies and Westminster’s dwindling pocket-money, those sums seem likely to start to shift. Throw the prospect of a hard border – meaning border posts, meaning bomb targets, meaning a return of British soldiers to protect them, meaning who-knows-what, and the pragmatic case for unionism wilts some more. And once that goes, the beating drum of demographic pressure becomes audible once more: the 2011 census showed Catholics had almost reached parity with Protestants for the first time since partition.

 “I live in a Protestant area, my children go to a Catholic school, and I am black … I want a party which represents the whole community, not one part of it”. . . “We voted Remain. She doesn’t listen to the will of the people here. She only listens to the will of the people in England.”

Though of course, it’s not just about religious affiliation, and not everyone ticks those boxes anyway. A man I met on Belfast’s Falls Road a week and a half before the recent vote came from that majority of people in Northern Ireland: those who are neither dedicated Loyalists of Republicans. “I live in a Protestant area, my children go to a Catholic school, and I am black” he said. “I want a party which represents the whole community, not one part of it”. For him, in this election, that was Sinn Fein. And most of all, he was livid with Theresa May. “We voted Remain. She doesn’t listen to the will of the people here. She only listens to the will of the people in England.” Everyone can see, he told me, that “the UK is dead”, he was sad, but emphatic, “Scotland will leave in a couple of years.” And with a clear choice, as he saw it, between a dying UK and the EU through Ireland, there was only one option. Despite no background in Republican politics, he was desperate for a border poll, and newly convinced of the case for a United Ireland.

Not everyone has made that journey yet, and it’ll take time. But it does feel, for now at least, like the direction of travel.

c6e7rnzwgaah4zmWhatever the causes of Thursday’s dramatic shift, the overall result was extraordinary. The borders of Northern Ireland were carved with a scalpel through the island to ensure a permanent Protestant and unionist majority. But in the new assembly, for the first time ever, that majority is gone: the maths is a perfect balance: 40 unionists, 40 nationalists, and 10 cross-community Members of the Legislative Assembly.

What this means beyond constitutional politics is key: the hard right DUP and TUV together don’t have the 30 seats they need in order to use the strange ‘petition of concern’ mechanism that was built into the Good Friday Agreement to prevent the minority rights of either sectarian side from being abused, but has in fact been used by the DUP to repeatedly block rights for other minorities, most famously equal marriage. While there is some suggestion that an Ulster Unionist or two may break ranks on that issue to block the majority who support the equalisation of marriage rights, there is a fighting chance that they won’t. Similarly, whilst progress on the matter is far from guaranteed (regressive politics isn’t the preserve of one party), the end of the DUP’s automatic block may allow for some space to discuss changes to the current anti-abortion laws which the pro-forced pregnancy party has always blocked.

c6fs9eyxmaaxiu6-jpg-largeThen, of course, there is the question of what next. The Good Friday Agreement, on which the power-sharing Assembly is built, requires that the biggest nationalist and the biggest unionist party to each nominate someone for first and deputy first minister in order for a government to be formed. Sinn Fein have repeatedly said that they will refuse to go into government with DUP leader Arlene Foster until she has been properly investigated for her role in the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. And the DUP can’t be seen to give in to a Sinn Fein demand to replace their leader, no matter how dreadful she is. If the deadlock continues, then there will either be another election, or direct rule from Westminster – possibly in what’s called a condominium arrangement with Dublin. At the same time, the same Sinn Fein are working to topple a precarious government in the Republic, which embroiled in another scandal. Are they playing a clever and co-ordinated game of some kind? If so, it seems to be going well so far.

And finally, let’s touch on the man who tipped the first domino. When Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, it was in part because of his unwillingness to work with the DUP’s scandal-ridden leader as allegations of malpractice circulated. But it was also because he has a serious illness. And his health is said to be rapidly deteriorating. McGuinness is from that generation of politicians in Northern Ireland who led their respective sides to lay down arms, make peace, and bring a relative calm to the last two decades in a troubled land. It’s looking increasingly like his final political move was signing not just a couple of resignation letters, but the birth certificate of another new era for Northern Ireland.

Comments (16)

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  1. Dougie Blackwood says:

    I had paid no attention to the Ulster elections as I thought it would be just more of the same. This insightful article is a breath of fresh air and points to a sea change in that troubled land.

    When the Brexit vote happened my first thought was that if I was in Ireland I would be campaigning for a united Ireland within the EU. Then I remembered the tribal hatred and the bloody history of opposition to the concept of Irish union.

    We shall see how it turns out. My only concern, as expressed by a friend in conversation last night, is if Ireland does unite the lunatic fringe of the Loyalists might come to Scotland. I really could see that far enough as we have enough nutters, on both sides of the sectarian divide, here already.

    1. Thanks Dougie, that’s a terrifying concept but one that presumably we could cope with?

      1. Jo says:

        Links with both sides to the conflict in NI have been well established in Scotland for decades. And no, I don’t think Scotland would cope with it very well at all.

        I enjoyed reading this article. It was excellent. I also was disappointed in how little attention the UK media paid to NI in the run up to the elections. Says it all really doesn’t it? Like Scotland, NI is an after-thought. As for May, she couldn’t even be bothered nor does she intend to assist in urging the Parties there to work together to form a government. Not important enough. Shocking considering the impact of Brexit on NI with the border implications and the fact NI voted to Remain.

        Foster has behaved very badly in choosing to blame the valid criticisms made of her over the “Cash for Ash” thing on misogyny. That wasn’t clever. In terms of tone she is one of the most arrogant female politicians I’ve heard speaking. She’s anything but an asset to the DUP and that was borne out in the results last week.

        I’d like to hope that the younger generations in NI want to forget the issues that separated them before and want a new sort of NI. I wish them well with that as they deserve it. I hope a new government is formed so that they don’t lose out and resort to direct rule from London.

  2. Dave says:

    There are ‘lunatic fringes ‘ on both ‘ sides ‘. Could be that they are losing influence but it could be to soon – we might have to wait for a generation to pass away.
    The current Brexit could force decisions that go violently wrong .

  3. florian albert says:

    Rather than compare the DUP with Scottish Labour, it might be more accurate to compare the DUP with the SNP.
    SNP and DUP have both ousted a moribund party by claiming to protect more aggressively the interests of their supporters.
    Both have little scope for action which would, in fact, achieve this in a hostile economic environment.
    Both are aware that they are increasingly being seen as part of the establishment, with the responsibility that goes with this.

    As many others have written, the election was – in effect – about Arlene Foster. While previous unionist leaders did just about enough to convince people that they were just about committed to power sharing, she refused to do this.
    This helped Sinn Fein (and the SDLP) to mobilize nationalist/catholic voters, who had been drifting away from participating in elections.
    At the next election, the DUP will – in all probability – use similar tactics to mobilize its core support more successfully. Most likely, it will be done under a new leader.
    Appeals to demography are similar to those made by Democrats in the USA, who convinced themselves they were about to become a permanent majority.
    They are likely to be as accurate.
    The ‘new era’ in Northern Ireland will be very similar to previous ones.
    However, there is – thankfully – almost no stomach for a return to the violence of the years after 1969.

    1. Dougie Blackwood says:

      This sad comment brings the whiff of #SNPBad. To compare the DUP, Protestant supremacist party, with the inclusive SNP is a bridge too far.

      1. florian albert says:

        If it is legitimate for Adam Ramsay to compare the DUP with Scottish Labour – and I think it is, it is equally legitimate to make the comparison between the DUP and SNP.

        1. Jo says:

          @ Florian

          “If it is legitimate for Adam Ramsay to compare the DUP with Scottish Labour – and I think it is, it is equally legitimate to make the comparison between the DUP and SNP.”

          That’s some logic you have going there!

          I don’t agree with either comparison.

  4. E. Williams says:

    This is the best, most naunced and unbiased article on a political subject that Bella has published in over 3 years. Superb!

  5. MBC says:

    I have been surprised at the lack of analysis of this in the mainstream media but have been curious about what is going on. So thanks for this interesting piece which fills out some of the blanks. I have been trying to figure out what is going on from the few comments of Gerry Adams appearing in the mainstream media and online comment in the Guardian from what appear to be genuine Northern Irish posters in the comments section.

    According to Adams, a reaction against Brexit has led to more people voting Sinn Fein. This is also borne out by the online comments with several NI secular, educated, Catholics saying they now support Sinn Fein because it seems to them to be a moderate, progressive, pro-European party. It would seem that more Catholics now support a border poll and uniting with the south because of the direction of travel Britain is going in.

    However, it seems that the south would not welcome re-unification as they do not want problems from the likes of Arlene Foster being disruptive and ushering in a new era of bombs and Troubles, especially after Brexit which is estimated to set back the Irish economy. A border poll would involve the south also voting and this is likely to reject unification for that reason.

    1. An Tabhartas says:

      Northern Ireland(the British military junta) is falling behind the rest of Ireland , the growth rate there has left it and the rest of the British Isles standing.Pensions in Ireland are higher and poverty lower it shows what proactive government can do. Is it little wonder people now are looking to a united country.Northern Ireland is a sad dark place ,after all it is British.

    2. Paul keane says:

      I am from DUblin. There is now a lot of talk about a border poll. People are very concerned about the cost of unification. But there are more important things in life than money. When the likes of the great general Collins took to arms to fight for our freedom he wasn’t thinking of pounds shillings and pence. It was simply the right thing to do. Given the chance I hope the majority in the south will vote yes. I think for the north a lot depends on how bad brexit will be for the economy. Are they loyal to the crown or half crown.

  6. William Davidson says:

    The election merely gave us more of the same, our two most successful parties remain the tribal/sectarian D.U.P. and Sinn Fein, the latter gained more votes this time because of Arlene Foster’s behaviour and contemptuous attitude towards her erstwhile coalition partners. It has been suggested that Foster could be replaced by the more pluralist and socially liberal Simon Hamilton, which would be good for the D.U.P., probably increasing its appeal to Unionist non-voters, while alienating some of its evangelical Protestant wing, but I would suggest that Sinn Fein would be secretly delighted if Arlene clings on, as she has proven to be an excellent recruiting sergeant in persuading more nationalists to turn out for Sinn Fein. Most people regard Michelle O’Neill, the new northern leader of Sinn Fein, as a puppet controlled by Gerry Adams and, despite not being a past member of the I.R.A., she appeared at a memorial event a short time before the election and praised I.R.A. members, hardly surprising as her father and other close family were members of that organisation. The current “progressive” image which Sinn Fein has adopted is somewhat dented by its leader and others’ continued unquestioning support for the I.R.A.’s regressive campaign. Despite the supposed kamikaze tactics of the Ulster Unionist leader, that party actually increased its vote, albeit by 0.3%, and ended up with 12 seats to the Alliance Party’s 10, with the U.U.P. getting 103,314 first preference votes to Alliance’s 72,717.
    By the way I didn’t realise there was a “British military junta,” or that it had seized control of Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K..

    1. An Tabhartas says:

      The British military junta- with its two and half counties in the north east of Ireland have been responsible for the deaths of over 150 million people on our planet. It’s politicians? Look you in the eye – SMIRK,pat each other on the back and tell you how wonderful they are.Northern Ireland is very much a creation in its own image.

  7. bringiton says:

    Perhaps the key to where NI ends up will be determined by whether Scots vote for independence or not.
    Who will the transplanted Ulster Scots identify with if Britain/UK no longer exists?
    If both Ireland and Scotland are members of the EU/EFTA and NI isn’t,that will leave them in a very isolated place,along with England (who want to be there).
    That will undoubtedly force a major change in attitude,one way or the other.
    Excellent article,thanks.

  8. Mac says:

    A lot of wishful thinking going on here. Events in Holland, France and Germany could quite easily see the EU and or Euro collapse within the next few years, Brexit has seriously weakened the EU. Scotland won’t vote to leave the U.K. either.

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