Get the union involved – and launch a border poll
None of us should be too excited about the results of Thursday’s general election in Northern Ireland. They were a major victory for Sinn Féin, a huge breakthrough for the Alliance Party and another slap in the face to moderates in both the nationalist and unionist camps. But despite efforts by some unionists to endanger them, the union plays no part. Despite the triumph of Sinn Féin, a united Ireland is not around the corner. The choice should solve the persistent protocol problem. It added a new one instead of detaching an old one.
The Sinn Féin and Alliance Party celebrations will last less than 24 hours. Tomorrow, when leaders meet, they face an even more fundamental difficulty: who will become Northern Ireland’s first minister? Instead of one, they have to climb two mountains. The word ‘historic’ was flung freely around the media at the Titanic Exhibition Center on Friday by the winners in Belfast and by their cheerleaders yesterday. Maybe, but tomorrow or Thursday when the new congregation attempts to choose a speaker, winners and losers will initiate the familiar stumble into a stalemate.
Of course, Sinn Féin’s success has given her the right to nominate Mich-elle O’Neill as First Minister.
The DUP can appoint its chairman as its deputy. Hell freezes over first. While Jeffrey Donaldson has avoided outright dismissing the nominally minor but in reality equal role, he will demand the end of protocol as a prerequisite for a softer line from him in the top job. That alone should guarantee Stormont another six months of stalemate.
We’ve been here half a dozen times. The role reversal, with Sinn Féin taking over the position of first minister previously occupied by a trade unionist, is highly symbolic but hardly historical. It is irrelevant who has the most political influence in Northern Ireland as the powers of both offices are equal. The sight of Michelle taking a symbolic but visible precedence over Jeffrey at all these important events attended by ministers would send a shiver through the stomach of the union community. No union leader could survive being a Republican’s first cronie.
Alliance leader Naomi Long’s victory was welcome, well lamented and indeed historic for a party that has worked for non-sectarian politics for so long. But it has its price. It appears to have cannibalized much of the moderate voice of the two less hardline voices of nationalism and unionism.
Losers in midfield were the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). It’s hard to believe that the man who came out on top by far in last week’s televised debate, the visibly capable and genuinely non-sectarian nationalist leader Colum Eastwood, emerged from this contest as a loser.
Eastwood has a brilliant team including Westminster MP Claire Hanna and his Deputy and Infrastructure Secretary Nichola Mallon. When I was in the transport department in the last government, I was very involved with Mallon. She was efficient and constructive. Where there were cross-border problems, she looked for solutions. She was the most notorious victim of moderate nationalists. She will be missed.
The UUP has suffered similar pressures. Their poor leader, Doug Beattie, was having a bad run. His leadership of the UUP has been under a cloud since his misogynistic views, which he held during his military service in Afghanistan, came to light. It’s difficult to convince a skeptical constituency that you’re a born-again liberal afterwards. In RTÉ’s late Friday night debate, columnist Alex Kane announced the death of the UUP.
The Greens are also victims of the alliance’s upswing and lose two seats to Long’s party.
So the middle ground has landed in Alliance’s lap. We now have three minorities – Unionism, Nationalism and “The Non-Aligned” dominated by the Alliance.
The result is that the current Stormont structures, designed specifically to recognize unionist and nationalist interests in forming an executive, must be reformed to recognize the new realities. The alliance party will probably insist on that. The next step is to amend the Belfast Accords to accommodate the existence of a third force. More
Fundamental is Sinn Féin’s call for a border poll and opposition from the DUP and others. Long’s position on this seems distant, as she believes there are more immediate issues that need to be addressed, such as health and welfare, the cost of living, a focus on issues that transcend the political divide. She did well in the election.
She could certainly do us all a favor by backtracking on requests for a border poll. There is good reason for a referendum on the survival of Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein is right. She could side with the Republicans on this issue. take it off the table It does not have to support a united Ireland, just a democratic decision as to whether it is desirable.
During the campaign there were signs that Sinn Féin was trying to downgrade the Border poll, delaying it. On Friday night, Mary Lou McDonald seemed to hint that it will be years away. Sometimes it’s better to travel with hope than to arrive. Sinn Féin might fare better with a frustrated crusade than with a completed or democratically defeated grand politics.
Perhaps Secretary of State Brandon Lewis should expose the party’s bluff. There is no certainty that a Border poll would usher in a united Ireland – far from it.
Perhaps unionists, nationalists and the coalition should now agree that the best way out of the impasse is not endless negotiations but a border survey in the coming months.
If Northern Ireland politicians spend the next five years arguing about the need and timing of an election, the same sterile struggle between nationalists and unionists will continue to dominate the agenda.
The Alliance party, the refreshingly enlarged force in Northern politics, should be the first to remove the hottest potato on the menu from daily discourse. Even the Traditional Unionist Voice, which increased its vote from less than 1 percent to 8 percent, should welcome them. The union should be brought into play. A Border poll would be truly historic.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/put-the-union-into-play-and-call-a-border-poll-41626083.html Get the union involved – and launch a border poll