A Window of Opportunity?

It’s important to head this up by stating clearly that I’m completely indifferent to which of our First Ministers gets to speak first at press conferences. It’s meaningless. Certainly, I would rather we didn’t have the optics of a Sinn Fein First Minister who spends selected weekends attending commemorations of Provo killers, but equally I think it’s a fitting punishment for the DUP’s party before country chicanery in the St Andrews carve up.

Michelle O’Neill does not represent my outlook on life in any way. But then again – flag apart – I had little in common with our DUP First Ministers. Plus the FM position has no clout. It is symbolic and ceremonial and there are much bigger matters to concern us. Matters that actually affect us.

Now that’s out of the way, I’d like to share my view of the biggest single outcome from this election, and its not a symbolic one. Michael Palmer wrote a strong article on Friday about how difficult it would be to form a single unionist party. Yes it would. It always has been. But the biggest obstacle to it is that the pro union community has unambiguously stated in this election that it doesn’t want one. There is no other logical conclusion to that.

Amidst all the lazy conclusions reached by far too many writers, I believe this election – while it might not have been a good one for unionists – has been a good one for the union. Certainly in the straight, traditional orange v green race, green came out marginally on top for the first time.

But this didn’t occur because of demographics or of a growth in nationalism. Nationalism didn’t surge and Unionism didn’t implode in terms of seats or votes. So between the two tribes nothing changed apart from Sinn Fein not losing any seats. So on that basis they are entitled to the FM position and that’s what should happen.

The big issue here is of course the incredible growth of Alliance with a 60% increase in their vote and a 113% increase in their seats. No one could or should fail to be impressed by that. But not enough has been said of WHERE they got those seats and what that might mean.

In the interests of clarity we should note that each of the five most overwhelmingly “Protestant” constituencies now have two Alliance MLAs while each of the five most overwhelmingly “Catholic” constituencies have none.

That’s not said in an attempt to tribalise or embarrass Alliance. It’s said to demonstrate the mood change in the broad “Protestant” community and its willingness to vote with its feet.

People in the areas I personally know best – East Belfast and Strangford – have neither rejected the union nor become neutral on it. But many of them HAVE rejected political unionism, particularly the DUP.

The TUV increased its vote but the seats that changed hands in majority pro union constituencies ALL went to Alliance with only one of them (Lagan Valley) won from Nationalism.

So why did this happen? Partly because Doug Beattie and his raft of new candidates had far too little time to make a meaningful mark on swing voters. Had he succeeded Mike Nesbitt in 2017 it may have been different. But he didn’t.

The Alliance vote, while it came from pro union areas, did not come predominantly from the unionist parties if the stats are to be taken at face value. Some of them came from SDLP voters in areas where their party had little chance of victory.

But I believe the bulk of that vote came from pro union people who voted to protest at and reject the social policies of the DUP on issues many in the UUP still struggle with. But its very wrong to assume that’s all young people over LBGT rights or women’s health issues. That’s far too simplistic.

The reality is that many people of my generation have gay children, young relatives, etc so they will not have the same attitudes as even they as individuals may have had a couple of decades ago. Also, many women have had to avail of abortion services outside Northern Ireland over the past five decades, so they, their partners, relatives and friends will not accept the simplistic attitude of political unionism over this very real issue.

These may well be people who’ve voted unionist all their lives who remain fervently pro union but on the basis of living under similar social laws as the rest of the UK. That has to be seen as a positive outcome.

I haven’t been Stephen Farry’s greatest admirer since he went to Westminster, but he spoke the undeniable truth on Talkback post-election by declaring that his party’s vote was “a vote to make Northern Ireland work,”

Other less high-profile Alliance elected reps in recent days have said the same in recent days. They are right. The broad pro union-community has demonstrated in this election that it is a diverse and multi-faceted one that can’t be represented by one cobbled together party united only by constitutional preference.

It doesn’t need its politicians to tub thump any longer or wave the flag. But it does expect its political reps to be serious, and most importantly to be able to deliver genuine change in our society that does make Northern Ireland work for all its residents and to stabilise our politics in doing so.

I’ve said in previous Slugger contributions that I believe Naomi Long is a genuine big hitter and probably the strongest of all our party leaders. I also maintain they could not have achieved their “surge” under any of their previous leaders. Friends in the legal profession have consistently told me that Naomi was a good Justice Minister who was prepared to work with the legal profession to develop change rather than try to dominate by edict as so many modern ministers do.

I think of all the candidates she would probably have made the most effective First Minister. She has the personality and strength of character to have represented all of us well whenever necessary.

Obviously at this stage her team can be seen as a bit lightweight. Some of them invariably are, and she suffers from the loss of Chris Lyttle for this mandate, and she lacks people of the substance of Close and Neeson from the early post GFA era.

Early TV contributions from some of their more voter friendly new MLAs have failed to rise above hustings rhetoric when confronted on the protocol or even with the open goal of the DUP refusal to nominate a speaker. For example, Kellie Armstrong’s comments on the bus drivers’ strike and its impact on schoolchildren this coming week.

But to be fair, all parties in this Assembly have returned too many unknown quantities or simple lobby fodder. Alliance just look more lightweight because they’ve returned a lot more new members.

So in the short term there remains a fair amount of pressure on the leader who delivered this success to now prove it was justified. To do that she needs to make the party stand for something unique in Stormont and to step away from the previous phoney “progressive alliance” with Sinn Fein, SDLP, Greens and PBP as they are now strong enough to make their own case and have it heeded. Simply being “the good guys” won’t cut it with voters looking for something genuinely different.

In this previous article I expressed reservations about Alliance – and I quote – “not because it is neutral on the union, but because it still hasn’t convinced me it has convincingly moved on to a position of something other than simply not being orange or green. A natural party of government, local or regional.” They’ve been given what could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to do so.

I also took the view that “now they need to make the next step and attract the votes of those who still have a strong view on the border but feel politically homeless.” They’ve done that and in so doing been provided with a window of opportunity to solidify and grow that vote.

In doing so they can make an unprecedented contribution to stabilising our politics and our society. I don’t know if they can do it. But I’m open to letting them try. I hope they succeed.

But they have a lot to do to demonstrate they are capable of justifying the opportunity given to them. Now its time for them to prove what they ARE, not simply what they aren’t. That will occasionally mean giving difficult or even unpopular answers to difficult questions.

Questions even more difficult than defining what a woman is.



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