Belfast Telegraph

General Election 2017: Polls at awkward times for Northern Ireland tend to make things worse

By Ed Curran

It happened at least twice before. On June 8, will it happen again? The Prime Minister Theresa May's snap general election spells potential disaster for the middle ground of politics here, if past history is anything to go by.

The first-past-the-post system with a single X vote for the candidate of your choice leaves no opportunity to vote down the ballot paper. It offers no chance for minority parties to bolster their fortunes through the transfer of votes.

A winner-takes-all contest in each of Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies encourages block voting within unionism and nationalism and leaves the smaller parties in a political no-man's-land.

Theresa May, like Edward Heath in 1974 and Tony Blair in 2001, has handed the big battalions a political lifeline.

Instead of the ignominy of failure in the current talks at Stormont, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein can look forward to a win-win general election in which they could wipe out middle-ground opposition perhaps once and for all.

Mrs May, as with Heath and Blair, says she was persuaded to call an election in the national interest. That is the big picture which the Prime Minister sees clearly.

However, Northern Ireland is the small one, which both Heath and Blair ignored at their peril when they called elections for February 1974 and June 2001.

Mrs May said yesterday that the only way to "guarantee certainty and stability in the years ahead is to hold this election".

That may be so for the rest of the UK, but the likelihood is that the poll on June 8 will not guarantee certainty nor stability for Northern Ireland. More worryingly for her in the future, the outcome of the forthcoming election may do the very opposite.

The first experiment in power-sharing at Stormont in 1974 had barely begun when Edward Heath called a snap election.

His government was confronting the miners. Much of Britain was on a three-day week. Inflation was soaring close to 20%. Heath believed, like Theresa May, that the country was on his side.

He sought a return to power with a new mandate to turn the economic tide, but the election only served to inflame Northern Ireland's mounting conflict and to prolong it for many more years.

Heath's election was the beginning of the end for the power-sharing executive and for the last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Brian Faulkner, whose unionist party was split over sharing power with the SDLP, led by Gerry Fitt and John Hume.

The hard-line unionists virtually wiped out Faulkner's compromisers in the poll held in February, less than two months into the Stormont power-sharing Executive.

The swell of unionist anger against Faulkner and his Executive told eventually in May 1974, when the Ulster Workers' Strike brought the end for power-sharing and led to almost three decades of direct rule.

Heath lost out also, misjudging the national mood and affording the Labour Party a return to office under Harold Wilson, who would be the first of many Prime Ministers left to grapple with the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Fast forward to 2001, when power-sharing was back after the Good Friday Agreement, though tottering along in the face of the IRA's unwillingness to decommission arms and explosives.

Now it was David Trimble's turn to fall victim to another UK election.

As with 1974, a mainstream unionist leader faced the spectre of Ian Paisley. His Democratic Unionist Party was poised to take advantage of unionist unease with Trimble. What Paisley required was an electoral opportunity and Tony Blair provided it.

The result of the 2001 election spelled the end of Trimble and the emergence of Paisley and the DUP as the dominant voices of unionism ever since. The once mighty Ulster Unionist Party never recovered from the experience of 1974 and 2001.

The election in June 2001 saw a 6% slump in Trimble's Ulster Unionist support and the loss of four Westminster seats, while the DUP gained 9% and picked up three seats.

The SDLP faired only a little better in 2001, losing 3% support, while Sinn Fein emerged as the largest nationalist party, winning four seats at Westminster to the SDLP's three.

In his memoirs, Tony Blair devotes many pages to his role in the Northern Ireland peace process, but none to the fact that his decision to seek a new national mandate for power in 2001 had the side-effect of shattering David Trimble's influence on unionism in the years after the Good Friday deal.

As things stand today at Stormont, there is virtually no prospect of any workable deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Theresa May's call for a general election takes the pressure off her Secretary of State James Brokenshire and surely means the end of any substantive negotiations until after June 8.

The election offers Arlene Foster an opportunity to redeem herself after a difficult year for her leadership. A call for unionist unity seems the obvious strategy for Mrs Foster to adopt given the success of Sinn Fein at the Assembly elections.

Another election, albeit not for the Assembly, meets the demands of Gerry Adams and Michelle O'Neill, who have called for a new poll in the absence of agreement at Stormont.

James Brokenshire must also feel some relief that he is not faced immediately with a decision to either hold a Stormont election or introduce direct rule.

The June 8 poll offers him some breathing space, but what comes after the counting of the votes is anybody's guess. Whoever is Secretary of State is likely to be left in a worse predicament than Mr Brokenshire is now.

Meanwhile, what of the other parties? The lesson from past UK elections augurs poorly for all of them. The first test of the new leader of the Ulster Unionists, Robin Swann, is surely to protect the two seats his party holds at Westminster.

Reaching some kind of electoral pact with the DUP looks like his only option, even though his predecessor Mike Nesbitt's leadership was marked by a bitter, daggers-drawn relationship with Arlene Foster and her party.

History teaches us that general elections held at awkward times for Northern Ireland have the capacity to make matters worse.

Like Edward Heath and Tony Blair, Theresa May does not appear to have thought long and deep about the impact of her decision on this little corner of the UK.

Certainly, even though she did single out the Scottish Nationalists for mention in her statement yesterday, she uttered not one word about Northern Ireland.

"Certainty and stability" she may achieve in the rest of the UK. It is hard to see the election of June 8 achieving other than more uncertainty and more instability here.

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