Belfast Telegraph

Colum Eastwood and Mike Nesbitt now need to hold their nerve - they, and only they, can deliver change we need

The SDLP and UUP leaders can be able and willing partners in a new goverment, says Alban Maginness

As we approach the unscheduled and unnecessary Assembly election tomorrow there is one predominant message from the electorate and that is their serious disillusionment with the political mess in Stormont.

They blame both parties in the Executive for the dysfunctional nature of the government that has brought about this mess. People are fed up to the teeth with bad politics, which does not deliver for them or their communities.

There are two separate and conflicting responses to this situation. One is that the voters are so disgusted and angry with the political failure of the past 10 years that they will stay at home rather than go out and vote for any political party, big or small.

The other response, which is thankfully greater and more widespread, is that change is required and they will go out and vote for any Opposition party rather than the two big parties. It is this latter response that has the greater potential for changing the political status quo.

What could hinder this movement for change is the tribal instincts of many voters, who have a misplaced loyalty to their political community, seeing this fealty to community as the overriding consideration.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP have a common interdependence between one and other to provide themselves with electoral success and ultimate political dominance. Though mutually antagonistic to one and other, they also depend on their attacks and counter-attacks to generate support for each party.

They need the hostility of each other to garner support in their respective communities.

They delight in mutual abuse and criticism, and greedily feed out of the resultant cauldron of anger and hatred.

Nothing could be better for Sinn Fein than Arlene Foster creating a bogeyman out of Gerry Adams and his unspecified "plan" to take over and bring about the end of the unionist world.

Her bizarre Press conference last week to launch the DUP manifesto was a transparent act of scaremongering. In the space of 20 minutes, she mentioned Sinn Fein 32 times and Adams 12 times.

This has the benefit of simultaneously agitating DUP supporters and annoying Sinn Fein supporters sufficiently enough to motivate them to come out and vote for their respective parties, despite their collective failure to produce something resembling a normal government here.

Equally, the much-publicised attendance of Michelle O'Neill, the new Sinn Fein leader in the Assembly, at the commemoration of the killing of four members of an IRA unit at Clonoe in east Tyrone in 1992 was a gift for the DUP.

Not only did O'Neill attend, she also gave an oration that paid homage to the four victims of the SAS ambush and praised their contribution to the cause of Irish republicanism.

It was a reassuring message to the Sinn Fein grassroots support base in the rural hinterlands that, although there is a change of leader, there is no change in the ideological basis that supported armed struggle during the Troubles and still maintains violence during that time was a legitimate political act.

For the DUP, this was the equivalent of winning the Lottery. Any goodwill that unionist people had for the new and youthful leader of Sinn Fein vanished after that event.

Same old Sinn Fein dressed up in a new image, but playing the same old, same old tune. Her deliberate and calculated action to appease the IRA element within the republican heartlands and to shore up an increasingly restless Sinn Fein voting base was seen by many unionists, and also nationalists, as unnecessary and provocative.

Its insensitivity swept away any pretence by Sinn Fein at trying to make a fresh start with unionism by breaking loose from the violent paramilitary past of the republican movement.

The DUP and Sinn Fein, right up to election day, will attempt to strengthen their respective electoral bases through deliberate acts of provocation, with anticipated overreactions from their opponents, thereby hoping to hold their restive voters in line.

But there is a new mood among the electorate and a substantial number of people wish to see change in our politics. The Opposition parties have sensed that and are energetically pursuing the disillusioned, the alienated and the angry who feel abandoned by a bankrupt and morally questionable Executive.

It is now up to Colum Eastwood and Mike Nesbitt to hold their nerve and to insist that they - and only they - can drive change and create the new and dynamic cross-community partnership needed at the very heart of Stormont.

To date they have successfully portrayed themselves as able and willing partners in such an administration.

Within the next 24 hours, they must consolidate that success and win over the active electoral support of the disillusioned, the alienated and the angry.

This is truly a defining moment for our politics.

Belfast Telegraph


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