The middle ground's now ready to take centre stage
There has been much talk of political realignment in Northern Ireland in recent months. But two quite different concepts are in the air — one conservative, one progressive.
Before devolution was renewed in 2007, the Democratic Unionist Party at least acquiesced in a change in the procedure for appointing the First Minister.
This became the gift of the largest party in the Assembly, just like in the old Stormont before 1972.
There may have been confidence in the DUP that this would recreate a unionist monolith, with Sinn Féin playing the role of convenient bogeyman.
But if that was the plan, it did not prove a winner.
Outflanked by the ultra-fundamentalist Traditional Unionist Voice, the DUP lost out to SF in the 2009 European Parliament election.
So eyes turned to the Assembly election in 2011, and the prospect that Martin McGuinness might move from deputy First to First Minister, though its likelihood was diminished by the poor TUV performance — being able to criticise yet not construct — in the Westminster poll last month.
That scenario however, cast a shadow back to the General Election and a clear commitment that the awkwardly named UUP-Conservative alliance would stand in all seats was equally clearly breached in the Fermanagh/South Tyrone constituency when the two unionist parties signed up to a pan-Protestant candidate against the SF incumbent.
This sectarian concept of realignment, ideologically dressed up as ‘unionist unity', however fell at its first hurdle.
Individual liberals who happen to be from a Protestant background do not sign up to such communalist conformism, which explains the paradox that the ‘unionist' result there was less than the sum of the prior UUP and DUP parts.
No more successful was the mimicking effort by SF in |South Belfast, the most cosmopolitan constituency, where |the SDLP was able to swat |away the pressure for a communitarian stance quite at variance with the republican ideal of the sovereign political citizen and of a politics defined by its lay character.
If the sectarians and made-over paramilitaries among Northern Ireland's political elite assume they can pull out votes by constraining choice and exploiting fears, there were signs in the |Westminster election of a more democratic and assertive politics, and a more future-oriented rearrangement of the political furniture.
Having proved a mayor for all the people of Belfast, Naomi Long provided the election shock in defeating the DUP leader, Peter Robinson, in the east of the city, drawing out a dormant Northern Ireland Labour vote — enraged by the ‘Swish Family Robinson' and their links with developers — for Alliance.
Elsewhere on the centre and left of the spectrum, the three SDLP MPs and, despite now being independent, Sylvia Hermon |comfortably won out, courtesy of cross-sectarian and cross-party votes their rivals could not tap.
The UUP, by contrast, was left empty-handed. Having finally realised its dream of high-profile Catholic electoral candidates willing to back a non-sectarian centre-right politics, it spurned them and embarrassed its Conservative allies by the Fermanagh/South Tyrone adventure.
The contest for the new leader will thus be between the two versions of realignment — the |re-embedding of communal division versus the normalisation of politics.
It is a no-brainer which choice will ensure the party has a future.
Robin Wilson is chairman of Platform for Change, a group campaigning for more positive politics in Northern Ireland