Belfast Telegraph

Sectarianism was big winner in Northern Ireland election, and that's nothing to celebrate

This was no political revolution, says Fionola Meredith, just a retrenchment of old tribal hostilities

The giant black letters scrawled on an immaculate expanse of white freshly-painted wall were stark in the spring sunshine. 'Taigs Out', they said. And then the same slogan again a couple of feet along. 'Taigs Out'. Just in case anyone didn't get the foul and filthy message the first time.

The words were daubed on the outer wall of a new mixed housing development in east Belfast. They appeared on Wednesday morning, just under a week after the election.

This was an extraordinary election, we were told by politicians and pundits alike. Remarkable, ground-breaking, transformative. It was a "political earthquake", an "electoral revolution" that "radically alters the landscape". One hyperventilating commentator even called it "one of the biggest moments in UK political history".

Supposedly, AE17 changed everything.

So why does it feel as though we're stuck even deeper in the same old stinking sectarian swamp?

Yes, I know there are new political realities, the main one being the absence of a unionist majority at Stormont. That's a significant first, I'll grant you, with many potential ramifications for the road ahead.

The DUP lost 10 seats of its 38, and several of its most prominent figures, like Nelson McCausland, Lord Morrow and Emma Little Pengelly, which looked dreadfully embarrassing for them. But in real terms it lost merely one percentage point of its share of the vote, and it's still the largest party (though at least it can no longer wield the petition of concern, that crude and anti-democratic blunderbuss which has regularly been fired every time the party didn't get its own way, particularly on gay marriage).

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein is snapping ever closer at the DUP's heels, with a four percentage point gain, and barely more than a thousand first preference votes between it and the DUP.

But it's still the second largest party, just as it was the last time round, and the time before. The other parties continue to bring up the rear as per usual. At the ballot box there was no overturning of the old tribal allegiances, no miraculous assertion of cross-community love.

Sorry, but that's not what I call a revolution.

I call it a reinforced sectarian headcount, born of implacable division and impervious to the basic standards of ethics, competence and accountability which are considered normal in other, more evolved societies.

In other words, it's largely the same bunch of hucksters, chancers, gombeen men and holy rollers as we've always had. And we put them there. That is nothing to celebrate.

It's time for our political classes to get real, too.

The goings-on at Stormont are an overwhelming obsession among some elements of the media, but quite frankly the schoolyard nature of politics in Northern Ireland is not sufficiently complex and developed to warrant this level of scrutiny.

Forget statecraft - usually it's all about an ugly, dirty fight for dominance and nothing more. We are a democracy of sorts, but a stunted, delusional, abnormal one.

Yet even the most trivial happenings are pored over and analysed half to death, with the result of alienating much of the population, who don't happen to share this addiction to political minutiae and arcane facts.

It also means that a sense of scale and proportion is often lost so that unimportant events are given the same forensic attention as more significant developments, while giddy hyperbole greets genuine shifts in power, like the loss of the unionist majority.

This bizarre form of myopia means that we lose sight of the bigger picture. And the bigger picture shows that we are so deeply immersed in the swamp that the bog-water is coming up round our ears.

It's not just the polarised 'Taigs Out /Prods Out' mentality that has been strengthened and rewarded by the election. We're financially sunk too.

Indeed, Sir Malcolm McKibben, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, has just sent a memo to all his staff outlining the consequences of the Executive's failure to agree a 2017/2018 budget before the institutions fell apart. Basically, civil servants are going to have to try to hold it all together using their limited powers to maintain public services until the politicians manage to form a new Assembly and Executive - and Lord knows when that will be.

"Uncertainty is difficult to manage," McKibben wrote. Well, that must be the understatement of the year.

Some Stormont nerds may be tempted to enjoy all this, finding excitement and self-importance in the crude political theatre.

The rest of us read the graffiti on the walls, watch the politicians squabble, and despair.

Belfast Telegraph


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