It's their party, cry if you want to ...
Published 25/09/2007 | 10:29
Is it a good thing or a bad thing that, since the DUP and Sinn Fein are sharing power, the wider unionist and nationalist families are considering what parties they should unite behind? That there should be a realignment of the old divisions, even before the Assembly and executive have had a chance to settle in and take decisions?
It was pretty inevitable that, following the radical change in voting habits, the traditional party divisions couldn't survive unchanged. Voters have deserted both the UUP and SDLP in droves, because they weren't extreme enough, so now they're regrouping.
The DUP are hoping to mop up a lot of the UUP vote - considerable in local and Assembly elections - by proposing a Westminster pact to re-capture seats like south Belfast. And the SDLP is pondering a link with Fianna Fail to give it some guaranteed clout in Dublin and counter Sinn Fein's claim to be the only all-Ireland party.
Meanwhile, over at the DUP deserters' camp, the Jim Allister faction is preparing to repeat the McCartney disappearing act. Accepting ex-terrorists in government is difficult for most of us, but some have to learn the hard way that it's democracy in action.
Pragmatic unionists have grappled with DUP-UUP election deals in the past without success, because each side thought it could do without the other. Times have changed and they know seats can be lost without 'understandings', so it's time to think the previously unthinkable. Would the UUP be swallowed up?
Maybe, but the DUP has changed, too.
Far more interesting is the Fianna Fail initiative, to launch a year's debate on whether they should organise here - which would inevitably mean a new and closer relationship with, or takeover of, the SDLP. I'm sure there must be similar arrangements somewhere - in the Balkans, maybe - where the governing party of one country wants to merge with a like-minded party across a national boundary, with the objective of removing it by consent.
It will be a tough debate, fraught with difficulties not only for the SDLP but for the whole Assembly concept, based on unionists and nationalists sinking their differences, in order to form a government. Eight years after the first, doomed, power-sharing executive was formed, we're still trying to find an effective way to govern together - and the suggestion that a Dublin-based party could partly be calling the shots here is not going to help matters, in the short term.
However, it should never be forgotten that the Assembly, with all its bizarre trappings, was a temporary structure, to create some consensus until people north and south decided on the big question - the union versus united Ireland. More and more, Dublin is having a say in how we run our affairs, and even pay for our roads, so the idea of Fianna Fail organising here is hardly extreme. If anyone is taking a risk, it is Bertie Ahern, importing northern problems.
Although Sir Reg Empey believes Fianna Fail's move would be destabilising, at least in the short term, it would be accepting the reality that all nationalists, north and south, see the answers to Northern Ireland questions in all-Ireland solutions. There have been much stranger things, in politics, than the governing party in Dublin fighting Westminster seats, so for the SDLP to adopt the Fianna Fail title should not be ruled out.
Destabilising? Yes, it would have that effect for a time, but we've weathered far more upsetting trends in recent years, and survived. There's no denying the rise in the nationalist vote, and returning to the direct rule past, as the Allisterites would prefer, is not an option. Gordon Brown, no less than Tony Blair, wouldn't have it. The antis will have a small, dedicated, following, but they cannot succeed, any more than 'real' or 'continuity' republicans. We should accept that the future position of Northern Ireland, and the Assembly, will always be in doubt - and may periodically be challenged in referendums. For as long as anyone can see, there will be no majorities for constitutional change, north or south, but the idea that the future should belong only to the Paisleys and McGuinnesses of this world, delightful as they appear to be, is no one's idea of democracy, or permanent peace.
The present form of power-sharing based on unionists and republicans pretending they're winning won't last forever. The north-south dimension is bound to grow and it's only logical that nationalists should have the chance to vote for all-Ireland parties.
Unionists are entitled to be nervous, and to maximise their combined strength, but their focus should be on maintaining the democratic majority for the union, through good government. The testing time is almost here, starting at the Giant's Causeway ...