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Stormont crisis: Looming poll shaping up to be yet another dreary tribal tussle

But complexion of Assembly could be vastly different if AWOL voters come out to register their anger, says Henry McDonald

Published 12/01/2017

Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Muilleoir and Paul Givan of the DUP
Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Muilleoir and Paul Givan of the DUP

First, a declaration of interest. My youngest daughter has spent many happy weeks living, breathing and eating Irish in the Donegal Gaeltacht over the past few summers. I am pleased to report, too, that my son wants to attend the Gaeltacht this summer, just like his sister, with the both of them devoted to the Irish language at their respective schools.

So, understandably, I was outraged to learn just before Christmas that DUP Culture Minister Paul Givan had withdrawn the Liofa Gaeltacht bursary scheme, which enabled at least 100 people a year to attend Irish language classes in the summer.

Although my daughter has never availed of it, the scheme, brainchild of former Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, helped children from poorer backgrounds to visit the Gaeltacht and steep themselves in the language. It was a laudable project shamefully junked in an act of crude DUP populism.

It was also an early indicator that any fresh election to a new Stormont Assembly would be reduced once more to the zero-sum game of sectarian politics.

So, the election that nobody wants (but which now seems inevitable) will be about the RHI scandal, public accountability, taxpayers' money and government transparency? Really? Think again. Unless a large proportion of voters who previously boycotted the ballot box in Northern Ireland because they are disillusioned with traditional orange/green politics turn up at the polling stations this time around, it is likely this latest electoral contest will be fought on the old battle lines.

Even before Martin McGuinness's resignation this week there was plenty of evidence that any fresh election to Stormont would, in the end, be reduced to the usual dreary tribal tussle.

How about, for instance, our Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir ordering the removal of the Union flag from his departmental headquarters on Belfast's Airport Road just a couple of days ago. The minister would have known it would wind up Protestants and remind the DUP and its voters of Gerry Adams' words about equality being the "Trojan horse to break these b******s".

Even Arlene Foster's choice of garb at the DUP Press conference on Tuesday at party HQ in east Belfast might have been a subtle indication of the tone of the looming election.

Although not exactly Ginger Spice Union flag-style, her choice of clothing had a red, white and (true) blue air about it.

The subliminal message was far from opaque: the DUP would fight this second election in less than a year on the issue of defending the Union.

The always-entertaining Sinn Fein MLA Barry McElduff, meanwhile, tweeted in response to McGuinness's resignation statement that: "We fight for equality. For respect. And for a united Ireland. That is why my comrade is resigning as Deputy First Minister this very day."

Just like Foster, McElduff claims the election struggle ahead is really about the long march towards a united Ireland; the constitutional question, despite the Good Friday settlement, remains unfinished business.

Even the SDLP seeks to deepen its green credentials by demanding Dublin-London joint authority over Northern Ireland if devolution cannot be restored right away after the election in a few weeks' time. Which, of course, Colum Eastwood knows fine rightly is unattainable, given that Theresa May's Government isn't just ideologically unionist in nature, but pragmatically needs the support of the DUP, UUP and independent unionist MPs in crucial House of Commons' votes during the current parliament.

The Opposition parties at Stormont - particularly those like Naomi Long's Alliance, which have had a "good war" when it comes to the RHI scandal - would dearly love to keep the focus on non-constitutional questions of competence and allegations of graft as central issues in the campaign.

In certain constituencies, such as East Belfast, the DUP might take a hit, as it did in the general election before last when Peter Robinson lost his seat to Long; an electoral setback - albeit a temporary one, given that another Robinson clawed the seat back for the DUP last time - that came about due to grassroots unionist anger over the issues that engulfed Ulster's first family, rather than any constitutional matters.

It has been argued elsewhere that, by refusing to temporarily stand down from office, as Peter Robinson once did, and thus pulling down the devolution project, Foster lost her best ally in the Executive in the shape of McGuinness.

The argument goes that McGuinness was an easier, more realistic republican leader for Foster to do business with than anyone coming after him, such as, say, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams.

All this may be true.

But the converse is also the case.

The sight of Adams lecturing Foster over issues of credibility, honesty and integrity is enough to prompt even the most liberal unionist to reach for the sick bag, given the many scandals still haunting the Sinn Fein leader.

You can be guaranteed that the DUP strategy will be to press upon unionist voters that they are doing Adams' bidding if they don't give Foster another mandate as Stormont First Minister.

The fear factor will be coming into play again very soon as well, with the DUP hoping to corral disillusioned supporters back into the fold - especially when the party plays up the prospect of a first non-unionist First Minister, and even one from Sinn Fein's ranks.

The flipside of this, of course, is that Sinn Fein will be talking up the chances of it coming out on top and taking the First Minister's post within the next eight weeks.

In the 'themmuns versus ussens' of Ulster politics, the real issues will probably be subsumed in this election, as they have been in almost all electoral contests which have taken place over the decades.

The only possibility is that those who never, or rarely, vote - repelled as they are by binary sectarian political squabbles - come out to the polling stations this time.

They did so in their tens of thousands for the EU referendum, a large proportion of them voting to remain within Europe.

If the Opposition forces can persuade this AWOL electorate to rally and deliver their verdict on the outgoing DUP-Sinn Fein Executive, the complexion of the next Assembly could be much more interesting.

If they stay at home, then it is more than likely the same two big parties will emerge as winners again of their own internal community battles.

And then the tortuous negotiations to form a new Executive will bring us right up to the start of the marching season at least.

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