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NI Assembly election: Opportunity for decisive leadership squandered again, but what's new?

We hoped for more, but as the main parties retreated to their ideological ghettos, Eilis O'Hanlon says it just wasn't to be

For political anoraks, the next few days will be as if all their birthdays and Christmasses have come at once. The votes have been cast. Now begins all the excitement of the counts and recounts. The pundits will get to parse and analyse every tiny shift of opinion. The statisticians will crunch those numbers to their heart's content. There will be drama, especially with fewer seats up for grabs than in previous elections. High profile names are bound to lose their seats.

Outside political and media circles who thrive on this stuff, most people will probably look back at Election 2017 and wonder: What was that all about?

Stormont will look different, if only by virtue of being smaller, but the balance of power between the DUP and Sinn Fein will likely stay unchanged, and the same horse trading will go on behind closed doors to resolve the same issues until whatever new deal is cobbled together is unveiled as the latest in a string of fresh starts.

Alternatively, Humpty Dumpty won't be glued back together again and the election will have been for nothing anyway. Either way, what was the point?

That's not to say nothing has been learned from this campaign, though, the most significant of which may turn out to be that Arlene Foster is not as big a character as we thought, or perhaps hoped, she might become.

The once and (probably) future First Minister had a huge opportunity to take personal control of Northern Irish politics after her victory last year, putting the foundations in place to dominate for a long time to come, as Prime Minister Theresa May looks set to do in Britain.

The Tory leader has had a shorter time available in which to do it too, but seems to grasp instinctively that longevity comes from bolstering the centre then moving out to capture adjoining ground from your opponents.

Mrs Foster, by contrast, never grew into that bigger role, and spent much of this election retreating into an ideological ghetto, making her party look smaller and meaner than it should be at this point in its history.

Polling day was her focus rather than all the days that will follow it, and she made the fatal mistake of letting her opponents define her.

Her partners in the Executive have shown themselves to be equally short sighted. Sinn Fein brought down the power-sharing Government in a blaze of indignant glory. Having done so, they evidently didn't have the first clue what to do next.

With a new leader at the helm, SF should have been raring to go at this election, full of innovative ideas as to the way forward, ready to propel Michelle O'Neill to the same endorsement at the ballot box that Arlene received in May last year.

In truth, SF's pitch for power has been predictable and insipid. O'Neill was a highly competent minister, but as a leader she came across in the campaign as a dutiful figurehead for a yet unknown purpose, not a radical leader ready to grab SF by the scruff of the neck and prepare it for the future rather than reflexively defending the past.

This was a chance to showcase who she is and what she stands for, but she's surely as much of an enigma to the electorate now as she ever was.

So was the whole collapse of Stormont just a grandiose retirement present for outgoing deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness? Is SF really that cynical?

The SDLP didn't exactly stamp itself on this election either. Colum Eastwood is a nimble, superficially skilful leader; but whilst he may have the passion of a young prize fighter, he's exposed himself as lacking the technique that's needed in the political ring.

He just bounces around a lot, jabbing the air, whilst the party's reliance on a stream of establishment figures from down South, who came up to help, accentuated the impression that the SDLP doesn't have a plan of its own, but just wants someone to hold its hand, as if swapping Unionist over-reliance on London with Nationalist over-reliance on Dublin would be any improvement.

The one new thing we definitely did learn over these past few weeks on the stump is that Naomi Long's shiny new Alliance Party, far from being the paragons of civic virtue that they long (pun intended) to appear, can get down and dirty with the best of them, as supposedly secret messages from the party's inner circles showed them plotting to flood BBC airwaves with anonymous trained parrots squawking the party line.

This was undoubtedly satisfying for those who've found themselves on the receiving end of one of the holier than thou brigade's moral lectures, but it was also the strongest symbol of a familiar, depressing truth that was repeatedly laid bare by this election - there are no white knights; no one's riding to the rescue.

This is all we've got, and we're stuck with it, not least because the squeezing of smaller parties such as People Before Profit has knocked on the head any illusions of an emergence of a new politics locally.

The Ulster Unionists, for their part, end this election looking more and more like a one man band, built around the still uncertain personal appeal of Mike Nesbitt; but his campaign did highlight another grim truth, which is that breaking the sectarian mould is as far away than ever.

Nesbitt found himself on the ropes after revealing that he would be transferring his own vote to the SDLP.It's the logical thing to do if the two main Opposition parties genuinely want to break the dysfunctional DUP/SF stranglehold; but it was too much, too soon for some, proving again that the biggest lesson Northern Ireland ever learns is that lessons here are never learned. Far from it. History, as the philosopher Nietzsche famously said, simply keeps repeating itself - first time as tragedy, and the second time as farce.

Right now we're in the farce stage. It seems ludicrous to believe that tragedy could re-emerge, but that's what they thought in the former Yugoslavia too. Sectarian tensions were supposed to have been overcome there, but it turned out they were dormant, not dead.

The last thing we needed was another trip to the ballot box to prove the same holds true here too, but that's what happened all the same. In return, voters received another powerful reminder that elections generally solve nothing in Northern Ireland, they're just things you do when you've run out of other ideas.

But sure, we knew that already.

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