Northern Ireland’s bleak elections have been two separate contests for the past century.
In the red corner, various union factions fought each other, while in the green corner, the nationalists fought each other – often with grudging commitment.
You are already forgiven if you missed the reality that in two weeks from today voters in this island’s northern jurisdiction will be invited to come out on May 5th and elect 90 members of the power-sharing assembly.
As a result, voters are being urged to elect a self-governing government to put their affairs in order, which has had a patchy record, and patchy to begin with, over the past 24 years.
Since the creation of the six-county jurisdiction in Northern Ireland 101 years ago, some rather daunting political realities have persisted.
But this time there are signs that three things could change: 1. The nationalist side, sense fine, could well emerge as the largest party and claim the top spot in the government of Belfast. 2. The “middle” parties like Alliance can grow into a sizable political force and dilute the you-versus-us dynamic. 3. Such changes raise big questions about the power-sharing structures introduced almost a quarter century ago as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
So what are the chances of such fundamental changes being revealed two weeks after that day?
Well, if you look at opinion polls and other social indicators, you would say it’s a money bet. But on the other hand – when Hardy becomes Hardy at election time in Northern Ireland – voters often revert to their atavistic tribal affiliation and vote for either ‘orange or green’ – even more so when one side appears to be heavily gaining the other.
So far all we can say is that there are challenging signs of potential sea change. But a fortnight of furious campaigns lies ahead, which is only now waking up to political contests.
Both great beasts – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin – have dubbed this May 5 vote the challenge of a generation in their own way. For both parties, the signaling is all about the future existence of Northern Ireland, with the DUP specifically warning that it is up for grabs and the SF signaling is what this process is all about.
If the opinion polls are correct, Sinn Féin is likely to win most of the seats in the Stormont Assembly, taking the position of First Minister at the head of the self-governing government. That would hit the unionist heartland.
Sinn Féin’s assumption of the top post would bring no practical day-to-day change in the administration of the six boroughs – but it would bring great and dangerous symbolism for both sides. It would be the first time in a century that Northern Ireland would be led by a nationalist from the Catholic minority.
There is little point in arguing the administrative reality that the offices of First and Deputy First Minister have equal authority and are linked to ensure that one cannot function without the other. This all brings us back to the spring of 1998, when it was deemed better to opt for constructive ambiguity in order to drag a peace and power-sharing agreement across the line.
DUP Guide Jeffrey Donaldson has pointed to opinion polls in the southern jurisdiction consistently suggesting that Sinn Féin, with the support of one in three voters in a series of polls, is likely to lead the next government in Dublin. He proposes Mary Lou MacDonald as the Taoiseach, along with party colleague Michelle O’Neill as first minister in Belfast, pushing for an end to the North and a united Ireland.
For these reasons, and others related to more recent disputes, we may well be heading back towards the disheartening political stalemate in Belfast, in which the power-sharing apparatus is once again frozen. But this standoff could pose a real risk that the 1998 power-sharing accords might fall apart altogether. But fortunately, nothing can be taken for granted just yet, and our old friend of southern jurisdiction, proportional representation voting, can still step in. The more encouraging point study this time around might be the chances for more cross-community votes – which have always been seen as tiny in many elections so far.
All eyes will be on the Alliance Party, firmly established as the third-place party in voter polls. If this continues, they can argue for a power-sharing arrangement that favors the two “big beasts”.
But the cross-community worldview doesn’t stop there. The two moderates on either side of the traditional divide – the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party – can win votes. They could even be transmitted from one to another in significant numbers.
At the moment, the campaign has only just begun and extremist fringe voices such as the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) persist. We have two crucial weeks ahead of us.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/voting-in-the-north-a-fortnight-from-today-could-re-shape-irish-politics-from-malin-down-to-mizen-41572163.html The vote in the North two weeks from today could reshape Irish politics from Malin to Mizen