I was delighted to see the centre ground, represented by the SDLP and Alliance, doing so well in last week’s British general election in Northern Ireland: the former giving Sinn Fein and the DUP a drubbing in Foyle and South Belfast respectively, and the latter increasing its vote by 9% and winning a seat in North Down. The DUP’s vote share dropped by 5.4% since the 2017 election, Sinn Fein’s by 6.8%.
This seems to confirm the rise of the ‘neithers’ – those people who are neither unionist nor nationalist – whom I wrote about last July.¹ In an interesting article in thejournal.ie, the co-author of the research on which that blog was based, Queen’s University Belfast sociologist Katy Hayward, writes that these results mean there is more hope now than at any point in the past three years of success in the inter-party talks (which resumed yesterday) to restore the Stormont institutions.² The message from the electorate is clear: “Forget about the constitutional issues for the present – get back to Stormont together and govern us properly.”
This is vital because if Northern Ireland is to get through the next few rocky years, under an unpredictable right-wing government in London and with a Brexit deal that every party and economic interest in the North opposes, the region will need to have a properly functioning devolved government. This is for three reasons. Firstly, the complexities of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal will certainly see new trade barriers in both directions on the Irish Sea (for just how extraordinarily complex read the excellent Tony Connelly’s latest blog).³
Secondly, Ulster unionism is going to feel increasingly insecure as Scotland pushes for another independence referendum and England focuses on its own interests. This is at a time when the DUP, and Ulster Unionism in general, is in an unprecedentedly weak position, holding a minority of seats both in the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly, and of NI seats in the House of Commons. Unionists can respond to this in two ways: with their traditional intransigence, or with some effort at moderation in order to persuade a significant element of nationalism that it is still worth their while to remain in the UK for the foreseeable future. Given the DUP’s isolation and alienation from their former friends in the Conservative Party, they have little choice but to compromise and do their damnedest to get Stormont up and running again. Fortuitously, it is in Sinn Fein’s interest to do the same, with their eye on showing themselves capable of government in time for next year’s election in the Republic.
Thirdly, the middle ground has voted. Despite Arlene Foster’s claim, this wasn’t a pan-nationalist front, says Hayward: “It was a result of middle ground voters deciding to make their vote count, almost in a desperate act of hope against fear. And the middle ground also cost Sinn Fein votes and a seat as well. Irish nationalism is also on the cusp of a new era, but it must listen to the views of the moderate, small ‘u’ unionists if it wishes to even begin to build a sure foundation for unity.” She concludes that the less unionists engage with their nationalist and non-aligned neighbours in the coming weeks and months, the more likely they are to fund themselves “outnumbered and outplanned” in a movement towards their worst nightmare, Irish unity.
I have to say I remain a pessimist. In recent weeks I have been reading News Letter journalist Sam McBride’s superb exposé of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal, Burned. The light it shines on the DUP’s dysfunctionality and incompetence when in government is shocking. And the Northern Ireland civil service was not far behind.
It is a long and complex tale, so I am only going to pick out a few ‘lowlights’. Readers will remember that RHI was a scheme introduced by the Department of Trade and Industry (DETI) when Arlene Foster was its minister to give a 20 year subsidy to farmers, business owners and others to install environmentally friendly biomass boilers. The problem was that the subsidy was higher than the cost of the wood pellet fuel, so that “the more you burned, the more you earned” (hence “cash for ash”). After an unforgivably long period of averting their eyes from this crazy anomaly, DETI officials finally tried to cap the scheme and introduce cost controls. However they then ran into opposition from the DUP’s all-powerful ministerial advisers, the ‘spads’. This group of arrogant, aggressive and unaccountable young men – led by Foster’s own ‘spad’ – worked hard to delay the cap in order to allow late-comers to pile into the now hugely discredited scheme, which was costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds.
The belief in the DUP and the civil service (later proven to be mistaken) was that the Treasury in London (i.e. the British taxpayer) would pick up the whole bill for this fiasco. “To spend as much of London’s money as possible was deeply ingrained across the devolved political and administrative apparatus”, one senior official told the public inquiry tasked with investigating RHI (Foster’s ‘spad’ believed “we could fill out boots”with this free money). It was also one of the few things on which the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed.
Sinn Fein didn’t come out smelling of roses either: their Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was shown to have asked shadowy unelected republican figures with long links to the IRA whether they were ‘content’ for him to close down the scheme. However the RHI catastrophe played perfectly into their narrative that “Stormont can never work and only Irish unity is the answer.”
McBride concludes: “What Arlene Foster and the DUP have done with RHI has been recklessly detrimental to what they say they cherish above all: the union…In time RHI may be viewed as a warning to the leaders of unionism that if they do not learn from what has happened and change their ways, there is the potential for a far greater collapse: that of Northern Ireland itself.” Such a warning is even more powerful in that it comes from the political editor of the province’s most staunchly unionist daily newspaper.
To deepen the gloom, I’m going to add a personal anecdote. Last month I had dinner with a mixed group of Northern unionists and moderate Southern nationalists in a hotel just south of the border. I came away very dispirited at how little those unionists had learned or changed (even those who were open enough to cross the border to converse with Southerners) after 30 years of violence and more than 20 years of stuttering peace and cooperation. One man objected to my use of the phrase “for the benefit of the island of Ireland.” A second believed that Ireland would follow Britain out of the European Union. A third felt that if there was a narrow vote for Irish unity, the unionist response should be to demand re-partition. Re-partition so that Antrim (minus Belfast), the only county now with a unionist majority, along with bits of north Armagh and north Down, would remain as the rump of Northern Ireland! I was speechless.
To finish on a more optimistic (many would say impossibly optimistic) note, here is my personal dream for the years ahead, for what it’s worth. Alliance and the SDLP will continue to grow their vote as more people realise that moving to the centre in a deeply divided place like Northern Ireland makes sense. More unionists (this is the difficult bit) will realise that they have to find some way of learning to live with the other people on this island as Britain’s politicians put into practice Peter Brooke’s 1990 maxim that Britain has “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.” Another way of putting that is: British (or rather English) people are utterly indifferent to Ireland, find Northern Ireland a huge pain, and want less and less to do with it. Johnson’s Brexit deal is only the latest manifestation of this sentiment.
For a period of many years Northern Ireland will be governed efficiently and even-handedly by a coalition of Alliance (who will represent a growing segment of pragmatic unionists, as well as non-aligned voters), the SDLP and Sinn Fein (who will split the nationalist vote between them). The first minister will be the impressive Alliance leader Naomi Long, with the equally impressive Claire Hanna of the SDLP as one of two deputy first ministers. In this way the province will be like Belfast City Council, which is run – and well-run for the most part – by a similar coalition. The DUP will be the eternal opposition, something that comes easily to them. Eventually, sometime after my time (I am 70), agreement will be reached on a kind of confederal system for the island, as the North largely continues to govern itself with a significant British dimension. And we will live, Irish-Irish and British-Irish, happily ever after. Dream on, says the sceptical journalistic side of my split personality!
¹ A bit more complexity in Northern Ireland: the rise of the ‘Neithers’