Let Them Have Their Say
By Dr John Coulter
Author and Journalist
It’s time for the ‘Twinkles’ to shine on 5 May! Who, you ask?
The Stormont Assembly poll that day will be the first major opportunity for teenage voters who were born after the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to have their say in the electoral process.
To use a common Irish phrase, these first-time voters would have been mere twinkles in their fathers’ eyes when the peace process was itself conceived.
There’s a perception voters will return the DUP/Sinn Fein power-sharing Executive back for another term in spite of all the spin about a dysfunctional Assembly. The fact remains – the former extremes of Ulster politics are keeping the democratic institutions alive!
There’s the suggestion, too, that Northern Ireland is heralding in a new era of so-called ‘middle ground’ politics.
If this was a reality, the DUP and Sinn Fein would be losing considerable ground to a revitalised Ulster Unionist Party, the moderate Catholic SDLP, as well as centre ground and centre Left parties.
But reality is a bitter pill. The loyalist marching season is as contentious as ever, and dissident republicans are still shooting and bombing, so where is this ‘middle ground’ emerging from?
It’s not a case of Irish politics shifting to the centre; more like previously hardline parties rebranding their image.
Such has been this remodelling process that former liberal unionist and nationalist leaders like the late Terence O’Neill and the late Eddie McAteer would be spinning in their graves with laughter.
Gone are the thundering fundamentalist speeches from Paisley senior. The DUP is now led by Arlene Foster, a woman from the UUP and an Anglican.
As for Sinn Fein, in has come a new breed of ‘draft dodgers’. It is no longer an unofficial prerequisite that to be a Sinn Fein candidate, you needed to have served an apprentice in the IRA and been a prisoner.
As the centenary of the formation of Northern Ireland approaches in a few years’ time, the Province is steadily moving back to the late 1960s before the Troubles erupted – a two-party system at Stormont.
Instead of the old Unionist Party and Nationalist Party, we have the DUP and Sinn Fein. Long gone are the days when a DUP politician could be booted out of the party for daring to cross the Irish border into the Republic.
Long gone are the days when Sinn Fein acted as the political apologists for IRA terrorism. The party is merely one step away from taking its seats at Westminster. It does everywhere else.
All it takes is a form of words for Sinn Fein MPs to utter, and the ‘Shinners’ – as they are nicknamed – will become a 21st century version of the now defunct constitutional nationalist movement, the Irish Independence Party, which was once headed by Protestant ex-British Army officer John Turnley.
We could take a negative approach and say this is the lull before the storm as Irish history is littered with rebellions, uprisings, conflicts and Troubles. Is there another fundamentalist firebrand like Paisley senior waiting in the wings? Is republicanism cultivating another Derry IRA commander like Martin McGuinness once was?
The next Stormont Parliament – like its current counterpart in Dublin’s Leinster House – will see new alignments after the 5 May poll.
While the DUP and Sinn Fein will retain their coveted positions as the largest parties within their respective communities, the key question of alternatives will arise.
Will the SDLP take such a pasting at the ballot box that a merger with Sinn Fein or a Dail party is the only way forward?
Unfortunately, the last SDLP politician to suggest such a single nationalist party, namely a potential merger of Sinn Fein and the SDLP, got his knuckles severely rapped. But with the SDLP star waning and Sinn Fein holding firmly onto the Catholic middle class, the time has realistically come for the two to merge to form the Irish National Republican Party.
The creation of single nationalist party will prompt calls for Unionist unity and the merger of Foster’s DUP with former TV anchorman Mike Nesbitt’s Ulster Unionists to form The Unionist Party?
The odds are clearly stacked that the DUP will score more MLAs than the UUP. The dilemma which both Foster and Nesbitt will face is the type of MLA team they will return with.
For Foster, will it be a case that her Assembly team is dominated by her modernisers, or will the traditional religious fundamentalists who ruled the party during the Paisley era flex their political muscles once again.
For Nesbitt, while he would like to see the creation of a UUP team more akin to a liberal English Conservative movement, what happens to his leadership if his team is dominated by Orange Order supporters or Right-wing Molyneaux types?
While the Unionist family is heavily fragmented at the moment in terms of parties, a closer working relationship between Alliance and a liberal-dominated UUP could spark the creation of a Vanguard-style Right-wing movement in Unionism aimed at bringing the various fringe Right-wing Unionist parties together.
Conversations have already taken place about the forming of a Monday Club-type pressure group on the Right should most of the UUP MLAs returned to Stormont be on the party’s liberal wing.
Right-wingers have been posing the question – what’s the difference in policy between liberal Presbyterians in the UUP and liberal Presbyterians in Alliance? The perception is being formed that the UUP is rebranding itself as nothing more than the Alliance’s Presbyterian ‘Right-wing’.
And what of the genuine centre ground parties, such as Alliance and the Greens? As Ireland becomes more secularist in nature, will Christians form their own political movement? Already plans are afoot for an all-island Irish Christian Party to restore Biblical values in Ireland.
If Alliance can break into double figures at Stormont, and the UUP cannot achieve 20 seats, is a merger of the UUP and Alliance on the cards given the overall liberal leanings of both these parties?
And in the background, don’t rule out the power of the Protestants-only Loyal Orders and the loyalist marching bands scene. If Unionism generally becomes too liberal in ethos, will the Right-wing Orangeism set up its own candidates?
There’s much talk about bringing dissident republicans in from the cold. While mainland parties like the Tories and UKIP have fielded candidates, Corbyn’s Labour still needs to give the official green light to contesting elections in Northern Ireland.
This has sparked a wave of unofficial Labour candidates across many constituencies. Maybe the ‘Twinkles’ should be the official Labour Party?
Voters may not be fooled by supposed debates concerning corporation tax, an official opposition, gay marriage, blood donations from the gay community, abortion, student fees, jobs, the ‘brain drain’, manufacturing versus the creative industries and constituency association splits.
The DUP and Sinn Fein will emerge as the Stormont equivalent of Scotland’s ‘Old Firm’ with the rest of the also-rans debating the merits of opposition.
What the 5 May poll will effectively decide are trends. As the globe commemorates the 400th anniversary of the death of the literary genius, William Shakespeare, his famous phrase ‘To be, or not to be’ can be reworded in the Assembly as ‘To merge, or not to merge – that is the question’.
Dr John Coulter is Ireland Columnist for Tribune magazine, and is author of the ebook ‘An Saise Glas’ (The Green Sash): The Road to National Republicanism, published by Amazon Kindle.
Follow Dr Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter