If #WeDeserveBetter, We’ll Have To Vote For It

I really want to be supportive of the #WeDeserveBetter movement. I think it’s a great thing when thousands of people come on to the streets to encourage the political compromise without which power-sharing cannot work.

But really, do #WeDeserveBetter when ‘we’, the people of Northern Ireland, have collectively rewarded the DUP and Sinn Féin for taking the stances they have?

Well into the period of stalemate, in last June’s General Election, the DUP and Sinn Féin were ‘punished’ by the electorate with all-time record results and the wipe out of all other parties barring Independent Lady Hermon.

The two big parties between them polled just shy of two-thirds of the vote, whereas both had previously shown signs of being past their peaks. If they have been hardballing in negotiations, it has been because each felt confident that they would be rewarded by voters for doing so.

None of the demonstrations will mean anything if people aren’t prepared to kick politicians in the ballots – where it hurts.

I have a further issue with the initiative: it seems to think that people can influence politics without taking a stand on any political issues.

The Executive didn’t collapse in a vacuum; it collapsed because of the RHI scandal. Sinn Féin was widely ridiculed for giving too much space to the DUP in McGuinness’ last weeks, and not only by its own voters. After the Executive walk out, its core support came out in numbers not seen for a generation in the March snap Assembly poll, and that in turn fuelled the success of the DUP’s ‘green peril’ strategy in June.

That’s how long-standing stalemates on marriage equality and the Irish language became unmanageable, and rapidly changing attitudes to abortion added a further unsolvable problem to the list.

Looming behind all this is Brexit, whose potential impact on Northern Ireland dwarfs any other by an order of magnitude. We are now seven months away from a potential cliff edge. The current UK government ‘Chequers’ position will last only until a Tory leadership hopeful thinks it’s advantageous to upend it.

Anglo-Irish relations are obviously at their lowest ebb since the early 1980s and community relations inside Northern Ireland are as toxic as they have been for years. Northern Ireland’s economy will be hamstrung by a hard Brexit, even if physical border controls are avoided. Agriculture is a significantly larger contributor to the NI economy than GB’s, where there will be few votes in English marginals lost by sacrificing the interests of farmers for more powerful interests. The future both of EU market access for NI agricultural products and the system of farm subsidies is hazy indeed.

If an Executive is re-formed how can it negotiate any meaningful stance on Brexit? Will it take the approach of the Labour government in Wales, seeking a few minor concessions before rowing in behind Westminster? Or it will it take the more combative approach favoured not only by the SNP but Labour and the LibDems in Edinburgh, withholding legislative consent for a negotiating stance that it believes is not in Scotland’s interests and laying the groundwork to be part of overturning Brexit entirely? Squaring that circle will involve more than cute photos.

We almost certainly will have an election coming soon in Northern Ireland – a by-election in North Antrim. Most observers seem to think the official petition will gather enough signatures to force the UK’s first ever recall election. Equally, most observers then think the opposition will be so splintered that Ian Paisley Junior will easily win re-election. That would be a huge wasted opportunity.

If people want better, they’re going to have to vote for better.

Here’s a modest proposal for #WeDeserveBetter. Is it capable of providing the nucleus of a campaign in North Antrim that might take Northern Ireland forward? By-elections have often been useful vehicles for voters to make a single issue protest vote that drives change, while knowing they will not affect the overall balance of power.

The DUP has long suffered from a poor reputation on issues of integrity – that’s what ended Ian Paisley’s period as First Minister, and it’s ultimately what led to Peter Robinson’s defeat in East Belfast in 2010. None of these political setbacks has really changed the direction of DUP politics.

Only a capital U Unionist can win in a first-past-the-post election in North Antrim. But could an explicitly Unionist independent, seeking cross-community support to overturn Brexit, make a breakthrough that would change the course of British history?

North Antrim was the most strongly Leave voting constituency in Northern Ireland, but there is evidence that opinion in Northern Ireland is shifting against Brexit in a dramatic way that isn’t the case elsewhere in the UK. If that 13% swing recently found in favour of Remaining is uniform across NI, that would imply North Antrim is close to fifty-fifty on Brexit. Even as it was, something around a fifth to a quarter of DUP voters opted for Remain in 2016, and rather more UUP voters.

A further incentive for Unionists is that two Unions are on the line with Brexit. North Antrim voters need only tune their car radio to BBC Scotland to hear how rapidly political attitudes are shifting across the North Channel. Even some of the most prominent Better Together supporters from 2014 have switched to supporting independence. Despite all the bad blood remaining from the Indyref, Scottish Labour is now working hand in glove with the SNP on Brexit in defiance of Jeremy Corbyn’s line. If the UK hits turbulence after Brexit, many Scots could vote for independence who would never have considered it for a moment before.

For Nationalists in North Antrim, the reasons for a tactical vote are obvious – not just sending a message to the DUP on integrity, but preserving a shared EU membership that has allowed economic and cultural relations to blossom across the border in a way that would once have been fantastical. Most importantly, to preserve peace in the face of reckless political risk-taking in Westminster.

Those firmly committed to Leave will not get behind such a candidate. But Jim Allister and Robin Swann will doubtless provide them with other opportunities to register their dissatisfaction with the current political situation.

For others, however, such a campaign would be an opportunity to change Northern Ireland for the better, preserve an Ireland without borders, and very possibly for the constituency that is the electoral acme of defiant Britishness to save the United Kingdom itself.

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