Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Twenty years ago today - the election that was supposed to change everything, but ended up changing nothing

The 'constructive ambiguity' which bedevilled the peace process back in 1998 has been replaced with a new, destructive clarity: the majority of us are perfectly happy with polarisation. By Alex Kane

Results at the ballot box in June 1998 weakened David Trimble’s position
Results at the ballot box in June 1998 weakened David Trimble’s position

Today 20 years ago - June 25, 1998 - voters went to the polls to elect the first 108 MLAs to the new Northern Ireland Assembly. The election came just five weeks after the referendum had delivered an overwhelming endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement and there was both hope and expectation - particularly in Dublin, London, Brussels and Washington - that another high turnout would provide solid electoral underpinning for the new institutions.

But a Conservative MP, who had previously been an NIO minister, told me: "The key to all this is how well Trimble does. He needs a substantial lead over the DUP, as well as a convincing overall pro-Agreement victory on the unionist side. This is bigger than the referendum. This time we'll see exactly what unionists are doing."

It was an astute observation. All of the evidence from the referendum suggested that while a majority of unionists/pro-Union supporters who voted had voted for the Agreement, it was actually a fairly slim majority. And the majority had been achieved because tens of thousands from that demographic - many of whom hadn't voted for years - had come out for the referendum. It was essential that they returned to the ballot box a few weeks later. They didn't.

The UUP didn't even top the poll, falling almost 6,000 votes behind the SDLP; only the second time in its history that it hadn't been the lead party in an election (in the 1981 local government elections it had fallen a few hundred votes behind the DUP).

It managed, thanks to intra-unionist transfers, to beat the SDLP in seat numbers - 28 to 24 - but it was still a crucial blow to Trimble's authority. He was able to take some comfort from the fact that the UUP outpolled the DUP by 25,000 votes - 172,225 to 146,989 - but Rev Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson (along with some key figures in his own party) poured scorn on him for allowing the "UUP's reckless support for Sinn Fein appeasement" to allow the party to be pushed into second place by "Sinn Fein's Irish unity bedfellows in the SDLP".

The election threw up some very big problems for Trimble. Pro-Agreement unionists - UUP, PUP, UDP and Conservatives - won 203,345 votes, but anti-Agreement unionists - DUP, UKUP, independent unionists - won 206, 657. The UUP won 28 seats and the DUP, UKUP and independent unionists won 28.

It left Trimble reliant on the PUP's two seats (David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson) for a very slim majority; robbing him, in the eyes of many unionists, of the "necessary moral high ground" to put pressure on Sinn Fein re IRA decommissioning. A number of the UUP's 28 MLAs were, at best, lukewarm on the Agreement, meaning that Trimble couldn't rely on their total support for some difficult decisions.

Key figures in the party opposed the Agreement; and Trimble's failure to deliver a convincing electoral or Assembly majority emboldened his internal enemies, leaving him at the almost constant mercy of one emergency meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council after another. The result also threw up an interesting dilemma for anti-Agreement unionists, particularly the DUP. Both Paisley and UKUP's Bob McCartney had described the Agreement - and its new institutions - as damaging to unionism and the Union.

They now found themselves in much the same position as anti-Sunningdale unionists had been after the February 1974 general election, when a majority of unionists had opposed Faulkner's deal.

Had the DUP and UKUP walked from the Assembly in 1998, it would have crippled Trimble. He would not have survived; and had he tried to hold on, the party would have removed him as leader.

But the DUP decided to stay. And, in staying, it knew that it was saving the Assembly and saving the Agreement. It wasn't long, either, before the DUP started talking about a "fair deal", a "better deal"; a very clear signal that it recognised that there would be no return to the drawing board if it wrecked the Assembly.

Instead, it began the internal process - knowing all of the risks involved - of preparing the party and wider unionism for something it could describe and promote as a "new deal", albeit one that would still exist and function within the general parameters of the Good Friday Agreement.

Sinn Fein also had some thinking to do. From its perspective, there was no incentive in cutting any sort of deal with Trimble. He didn't command a convincing majority in the Assembly and his support within his own party was crumbling on a daily basis.

It was also in its interests to secure a deal that would allow it to eat into the 35,000-vote gap between it and the SDLP and continue to prop up an Agreement which a massive majority of nationalists supported.

Within months of the election it was clear that the DUP and Sinn Fein had an eye on bigger prizes. It was also clear, again within a fairly short time, that London, Dublin and Washington recognised that Trimble was too weak to carry his party and see off a sustained challenge from both the DUP and his increasingly rebellious internal opponents.

Crucially, they also recognised that a potential deal involving the DUP and Sinn Fein was not as preposterous as it sounded; primarily because both parties wanted to eclipse their main electoral rivals and saw the Assembly as the best means of achieving that goal.

It may have taken about seven years to cut the deal that saw Paisley and McGuinness as, to all intents and purposes, co-equal top dogs, but the seeds of the May 2007 deal can be found in the results of that election in June 1998. Yet, 11 years on since the DUP/Sinn Fein deal, the Assembly looks even shakier than it did when the UUP and SDLP were the electoral top dogs in June 1998.

The "constructive ambiguity" which bedevilled the process back then has been replaced with a destructive clarity which makes it almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that there is no deal or arrangement which unionists and nationalists can strike that will withstand first contact with a set-in-stone reality: that reality being that we don't actually want a deal that brings us closer together.

June 25, 1998 was another "moment" in local politics, a moment in which we had the chance to prove that we wanted something different here. Yet, here we are more polarised than ever and with both communities rallying around parties which seem determined to keep us apart.

Where we go to from here is anyone's guess. But I'm pretty sure that it won't be in the direction of stability, genuinely consensual power-sharing, credible co-operation, or a new way of doing politics.

None of this will worry the DUP or Sinn Fein. All of the polling evidence suggests that the increasing numbers of people who vote for them are perfectly content with polarisation.

Belfast Telegraph


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