Electorate more entrenched and torn than ever
The Northern Ireland council elections show that nothing much has changed. Half the electorate has no interest in voting. The other half are looking in different directions culturally and constitutionally. The result means continued peace but no real meeting of the political waters.
How far has the politics of unionism come in my voting lifetime? If I needed the answer I had only to look at my white council ballot paper last Thursday evening in the privacy of a village hall polling station.
Eleven pro-union candidates representing six pro-union parties were contesting only five new council seats. No less than four DUPs, two UUPs, two Ukips, two NI21s, two TUVs and one Alliance were seeking my support.
One word – confusion – sprung to my mind. What did the long list of names on that ballot paper really stand for? Were all their views so different that as many candidates and parties were required?
The varied list of candidates spoke volumes about the past, the present, and the future starkly illustrating how the pro-union, Protestant community is no longer as at one as it was half a century ago. Long gone are the council election days when an "X" was all that was required beside each of the unionist candidates from a single united party.
These council election results are nothing to shout home about as far as unionists are concerned. While the DUP and the Ulster Unionists, in particular, may congratulate themselves on holding so many of the 462 seats in the new councils, a divided, dissenting under-current flows through the results. The pro-union community continues to display a distinct lack of consensus on the way forward for Northern Ireland.
The doubling of the Traditional Unionist Voice vote and the successes of the Progressive Unionist Party in the cockpit political arena which Belfast has become, underline unease. The improvement in the Ulster Unionist vote may be interpreted optimistically by some as evidence of pro-union voters moving towards the middle ground. More likely the Ulster Unionists are winning more support by voicing criticism of Stormont's performance.
The election results provide little or no evidence of moderate, non-sectarian, non-partisan politics in Northern Ireland even after more than two decades of the peace process.
The Alliance Party talks up its successes but as has been the case since its foundation in the 1970s, it is still failing to make a big breakthrough.
As for NI21, enough said but even if it had not crash-landed in such spectacular fashion on the eve of the election, it is doubtful if the new party would have made any appreciable difference to the overall result, other than to weaken the Alliance Party's support. Nothing much has changed in the mood of unionism other than marginal signs that the pro-union community is struggling to come to terms with the agenda of Sinn Fein which is now an even more imposing and dominant challenge.
We are left with the 11 new super councils of Northern Ireland split down the middle, evenly divided between and dominated by pro- and anti-unionist parties. Worst of all, Belfast remains a political battleground with the marching season almost upon us.
Sinn Fein did not increase its vote in this election but it will call the shots even more than before. The big issue now and in the foreseeable future centres on the party's pursuit of equality more than on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein through its electoral dominance of the nationalist community, with the SDLP struggling to play catch up, will drive the equality agenda.
How will the pro-union community react? Do unionists have the will to reach further compromises? Or will it be a case of more backs to the wall, as the electoral results suggest?
As for the new super councils – 11 instead of 26 – the challenge is to live up to the promises set for them.
A leaflet which fell through all our letter-boxes recently heralded "strong, dynamic councils that create vibrant, healthy, prosperous, safe and sustainable communities with the needs of citizens at their core".
Fine words indeed but will the new councils be "more creative in delivering services, more flexible and responsive to local needs?" Will they "bring power closer to you and make cost savings benefiting the rate-payer?"
These are tall orders especially in a deeply divided society, still looking in very different constitutional and cultural directions. Northern Ireland's 11 councils and 462 new councillors have their work cut out for them.