Common-ground politics is the future, or we’re history
Adopting an ‘ourselves alone’ attitude at the Assembly will simply not do, warns Professor Rick Wilford
It may seem like a descent into midsummer madness, but a stock-take of the parties and their stances towards the 2011 Assembly election is opportune.
With the contest less than a year away, there is much to concentrate the minds of party leaders and their rank and file members.
Top of the agenda is the continuing uncertainty about the UK economy and the looming assault on the public sector upon which Northern Ireland is so heavily |reliant.
That context will shape the terms of our electoral debate. Hence, the key strategic issue for all parties is whether they can rise to the challenge of relative public spending famine and display an even stronger unity of purpose than that exhibited in the wake of dissident republican outrages.
If they can, it will be a sign of growing political maturity as will the unpalatable decision to introduce water charges.
Moreover, the opportunity for common cause to be joined with the Scots and the Welsh to counter the depredations of a Con-Lib Government intent on rolling back the welfare state offers the prospect of a developing pan-|devolved politics, albeit that it runs the undeniable risk of upsetting voters in England.
In what will become increasingly straitened circumstances, ourselves alone will just not do: but there’s the rub.
The General Election witnessed a depressing reversion to sectarian type given the attempts to engineer both unionist and nationalist electoral pacts.
Subsequently, Declan O’Loan’s plea for SDLP-SF realignment fell on decidedly stony ground, so a pan-nationalist electoral front can be discounted.
What, though, of unionism? With the TUV utterly marginalised, whither the UUP and DUP?
By the time of the Assembly election, the UUP will have a |new leader as may the DUP also.
The pressure to agree an electoral pact appears to be growing, but it is predicated more on the basis of ‘Stop McGuinness becoming First Minister’ than any positive reappraisal of unionism.
More immediately, for unionist politicians, especially the UUP, mobilising voters to actually turn out on polling day has become such a daunting task that the temptation to throw in its lot with the DUP may to some seem preferable to clinging to its own electoral wreckage. Yet, for those of a more liberal disposition, this option equates to political and moral surrender.
This presents a profound existential dilemma for the UUP now that the UCUNF dalliance has failed.
Besides Sinn Fein, the only party to increase its vote share at the General Election was Alliance, capped by Naomi Long’s victory in East Belfast.
In addition, Margaret Ritchie’s determination to resist electoral seduction by Sinn Fein, suggests that there may be the opportunity to forge a shared platform embracing the UUP, the SDLP and, perhaps, Alliance.
Devising a campaign on common, cross-community ground rather than, in the UUP’s and SDLP’s case, diving for cover into their respective communal trenches would herald a decisively new kind of politics — though not as game-changing as the preparedness of a unionist to serve alongside Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister, should such |circumstances arise.
As they contemplate next year’s contest, one thing all parties must bear in mind is that since the first Assembly election in 1998, turnout has consistently fallen.
Moreover, it fell again at the General Election to 57.6%, significantly below the national turnout of 65.1%.
This is a sign not of contentment, but of disillusion.
A large swathe of the electorate wants a new politics to match some of the fresh faces that will sit on the benches at Stormont in 2011, now that the Westminster/ Assembly/local government double-jobbing travesty is ending.
The next few months will determine whether or not that want will be met.
Rick Wilford is Professor of Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast