Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein's triumphalism and DUP intransigence make direct rule inevitable

Election ushered in new political reality which 'Big Two' parties are ill-suited to deal with

By Alban Maginness

The recent election was an electoral revolution. The fact that we now have an Assembly in which there are 40 unionists, 39 nationalists and 11 'Others' means that, for the first time in the existence of Northern Ireland, there is not a unionist majority at Stormont.

This is an extraordinary new set of circumstances for all of us, with profound implications not just for the Assembly, but for our wider politics.

It is a huge political and psychological blow for the DUP and unionism at large. It radically alters the landscape for the foreseeable future.

Given the dynamics of the demographic inevitability of the increase of the Catholic/nationalist population and the relative decline in the Protestant/unionist population that has been under way for quite some time, the conventional wisdom was that this stage of political balance would probably not be reached for another 10 to 20 years.

Therefore, this is a premature and unexpected development unseen by most, but it fundamentally changes the dynamic.

At this moment in time the DUP may believe that it has a serious problem to resolve as to whether Arlene Foster leads it (or not) after the worst election result for unionism since the foundation of the state.

Of course, the leadership issue is important and crucial, as is the related question of the formation of a new Executive.

But there is a much more fundamental issue facing the DUP and looming large in the political background.

The real issue now for the DUP is what does the leading party of unionism do to face the challenge of the new realities and the very existence of the entity that we know as Northern Ireland? With no majority in the Assembly, where now for unionism?

The explanation for the Sinn Fein landslide that hit the ballot boxes on Thursday last was the appallingly insensitive leadership of Foster. Having triumphantly led the DUP to a solid victory in last May's elections, she squandered it 10 months later through her antagonistic and dismissive attitude to the nationalist community.

Her belittling remarks regarding the Irish language were seen as a contemptuous attack on the integrity of the nationalist community. It wasn't simply that she didn't understand the value placed on the language, but was seen as being gratuitously offensive to people's sense of Irishness.

While the majority of nationalist people don't speak Irish, nonetheless they see it as a cultural legacy that enriches their lives.

If the Queen could make a friendly gesture by speaking Irish, why couldn't our First Minister make a similar gesture?

Clearly, she failed to try to make any effort to understand the feelings of the nationalist community. Eventually nationalist people lost patience with the begrudging First Minister and her party.

The loss of 10 seats and a unionist majority in the Assembly lies fairly and squarely at Foster's feet. Her reluctance to be generous in spirit is at the heart of her failure. As David McIlveen said, Foster "awakened a sleeping giant".

Now the DUP is faced with dealing with the aftermath of a disastrous election campaign that has created a new and politically challenging context. It is ill-prepared and ill-equipped to face a new and hugely uncertain and dangerous future.

To date DUP thinking has been short-term and short-sighted; tactical rather than strategic. No one seriously thought about coping with the inevitably declining political majority within and without the Assembly. No thought was ever given to managing such an inevitable process.

It probably thought it would never happen or that, like climate change, it never existed. It was in denial. There was no foresight within the unionist leadership.

Whatever about before, short-term thinking is no longer a viable proposition for unionism. There needs to be a radical rethink among unionists to deal with the new reality.

Strangely, the only DUP politician expressing some innovative thought has been Ian Paisley MP, who is urging unionists to be more accommodating.

The type of vibrant, cross-community partnership proposed by Mike Nesbitt and supported by Colum Eastwood has been largely rejected by the electorate - the people, very sadly, preferring to vote for their larger and seemingly stronger sectarian protectors, who will simply guarantee continued polarisation.

Attempts at building a genuine, cross-community partnership have repeatedly failed largely due to unionists' reluctance to embrace the process.

Bar a miracle, the most probable outcome of this election is a prolonged stalemate and more polarisation, with a triumphalist and powerful Sinn Fein refusing to agree to an Executive unless its demands are fully met by a very wounded and humiliated DUP.

The likely outcome of all of this is an indefinite period of direct rule from London.

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