Belfast Telegraph

Why DUP and SF successes bode ill for agreement and offer only deadlock and sectarianism

Liquidation of SDLP and UUP in General Election was shocking, but not remotely surprising, says Alban Maginness

As in February 1974, the intervention of an unplanned general election has impacted enormously on our local politics. In 1974, the election of 11 anti-power-sharing unionist MPs severely undermined the support for the Chief Minister, Brian Faulkner, and contributed greatly to the overthrow of the power-sharing Executive in May of that year.

In the election last week, the liquidation of the middle ground of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party in the General Election, though shocking, should not have come as such a surprise.

The process of rebooting the intrinsic sectarianism of our electoral politics has been ongoing since the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister and the break-up of the Executive.

Before Christmas 2016, Sinn Fein was panicked by its own republican support base's hostile reaction to the RHI scandal. The sheer incompetence surrounding the scheme was compounded by the suspicion of corruption - now the subject of the ongoing public inquiry.

Sinn Fein was also extremely nervous of the critical role being played out by the new Stormont Opposition and, in particular, Colum Eastwood and his young and eager team of SDLP Assembly members. The SDLP and the UUP smelt blood and were spoiling for a fight.

In the event of Arlene Foster not agreeing to stand aside temporarily, Sinn Fein was quite prepared to do the unthinkable and bring down the Executive.

Bluntly, they were prepared, if necessary, to abandon the cross-community partnership of the Good Friday Agreement in order to consolidate their electoral support in the community. The Sinn Fein/DUP duopoly was nearing its end.

A spooked Sinn Fein reckoned that, if it continued to try and patch things up with Arlene, then the Opposition would make hay and soon weaken its public support.

A gravely ill Martin McGuinness could no longer stave off the internal Sinn Fein critics, who saw him as being too soft with the DUP and he was obliged to resign and trigger the March 2 Assembly election.

The new strategy of confronting and hammering the DUP excited popular support among nationalists fed-up with the DUP and its offensive stance on the Irish language and nationalism in general.

Arlene's crude remarks about crocodiles betrayed a nasty and belittling approach to the nationalist community as a whole.

She appeared to be oblivious to the harm that she, as an individual, was doing to the political process.

She personally sparked a hostile reaction that gave Sinn Fein enormous additional support on the ground.

In the ensuing election battle, both Sinn Fein and the DUP fed off one another and benefited from the public mutual antagonism that scarred the bitter election campaign.

The successful defence of its Assembly seats by Sinn Fein in that election was an extraordinary achievement, coming as it did just one seat short of the DUP's return of 28 seats.

But while Sinn Fein's obvious success cheered republicans, it equally frightened and horrified unionists, who saw this result as the endgame for the Union.

The nightmare of a Sinn Fein ascendancy over the DUP in an Assembly was staring them in the face.

But, as the recent general election has demonstrated, the unionist community were determined to fight back in additional large numbers and overwhelmingly chose the DUP as their party of choice.

The DUP in this election not only won two extra seats at Westminster, but also increased its vote by an extra 10% among the unionist community, a substantial electoral achievement, premised on Sinn Fein's triumphalist boast of overtaking the DUP in the Assembly and all the sabre-rattling about border polls.

The unionist horses were well and truly frightened, indeed terrified, and came out in huge additional numbers to back a defiant and strong-looking DUP and to abandon a weak-looking UUP.

Equally, given the stark choices that have to be made under the first-past-the-post electoral system, the SDLP was also squeezed by a Sinn Fein-driven wave that excited sectarian passions in the nationalist community.

As a result, there is little hope now of any agreement on an Executive before the June 29 deadline.

Ironically, after a disastrous Assembly election, the DUP has emerged triumphant in this election and, unbelievably, is the kingmaker in London. Now, with such strength, why would it make concessions to Sinn Fein?

As the DUP prospers at Westminster, Sinn Fein, by contrast, is marginalised by its abstentionist position.

However, it will come under increasing pressure to participate in parliament.

People do not understand why it won't end abstentionism after having done the same in the Dail and the Assembly.

Its current strategy is unsustainable.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP can be extremely pleased by their recent successes, but those successes mean nothing towards achieving agreement and can only produce more deadlock, confrontation and continued sectarian trench warfare.

Belfast Telegraph

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