After the Ball is Over
By Dr John Coulter
Introducing compulsory voting, lowering the voting age to at least 16, and making Citizenship Studies on the importance of the ballot box part of the school curriculum should be three crucial parts of the planned Programme for Government over the next five-year Assembly mandate.
The outcome of the Stormont poll can be easily summarised: compared to 2011, the DUP, UUP, Alliance, Independent and TUV got the same final tally of seats; Sinn Fein lost one seat in its tally; the SDLP lost two; the Greens up one, and the Left-wing People Before Profit Alliance won two.
The key differences will be in the trends within the respective parties. Returning First Minister Arlene Foster of the DUP’s Assembly team is a moderniser ethos in general, in spite of the party’s strict adherence to Biblical principles against gay marriage and abortion.
The loss of key DUP MLAs, such as David McIlveen in North Antrim, Ian McCrea in Mid Ulster, and Jonathan Craig in Lagan Valley, could point to the continuing waning of the influence of the fundamentalists within the party.
Under Foster’s leadership – along with Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson as part of its Westminster team – the DUP is evolving into a Centre Right version of the UUP under the helm of its late former leader, James Molyneaux. Ideology-wise, DUP2016 is almost a mirror-image of UUP1986.
As for Mike Nesbitt’s UUP, while the leader hoped for 18 or 19 seats, he will lead an Assembly team of 16 – the same as 2011, and at least the party has won back three seats it lost through defections – John McCallister to NI21 in South Down, Basil McCrea to NI21 in Lagan Valley, and David McNarry to Ukip in Strangford.
One lesson the UUP must take from Stormont 2016 – the lurch to being a liberal unionist party has flopped like the disastrous deal with the Tories in a previous Westminster poll. The UUP must re-position and re-brand itself as a Centre Right movement, preparing for a merger between the DUP and UUP to simply form The Unionist Party.
On the Unionist Right-wing, the hard reality is that Ukip has disappeared, and the TUV is merely North Antrim MLA Jim Allister’s political fan club.
Allister’s long-term strategy should be to enter negotiations to join the proposed merged DUP/UUP with his TUV taking up the same role as the Right-wing Ulster Monday Club pressure group within the UUP under the Molyneaux era.
Policy wise, that’s Unionism sorted. But what about republicanism and nationalism? With a net overall loss for both ideologies of three seats, the debate should be about the M-word (merger) rather than Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams’ N-word debacle.
While the SDLP did not suffer a seismic-style meltdown in terms of seat losses, the fact the party lacks an all-island identity puts it in the same political fleet as the Irish Nationalist Party and Irish Independence Party – and both of their boats eventually sank without trace.
The SDLP’s Assembly team is the same as it has always been since the first Assembly mandate in 1998 – moderate nationalists! Nothing has changed except the slow but steady seat loss. But Sinn Fein’s brand of republicanism has changed.
Okay, so Sinn Fein didn’t manage to hit the magical 30-MLA mark which would have given it the prestigious Petition of Concern plank, but it is safely back as the second largest party in Stormont and has comfortably retained its crown as the biggest voice in Northern Ireland for an all-island republic.
But Sinn Fein2016 is not the same as Sinn Fein1982 when the party won only a handful of seats in the then Assembly. Sinn Fein has rebranded itself as a constitutional republican party, rather than the daily apologist for the Provisional IRA.
Sinn Fein is now a political movement dominated by the so-called ‘draft dodgers’ – namely, those politicians with no known links to the Provos. Both Sinn Fein and the SDLP see themselves as socialist in ethos with a united Ireland their long-term goal. So why not merge?
Sinn Fein has what the SDLP seeks – an all-island political profile. And the SDLP has what Sinn Fein seeks – a grip on certain middle class rural Catholic strongholds which a combined Sinn Fein/SDLP movement would certainly tip the balance in the Stormont Chamber in favour of the united Ireland cause.
Unionist politicians constantly warned about the influence of what they branded as the so-called Pan Nationalist Front. If Unionism is moving slowly but steadily towards a single broad movement, then its makes sense for nationalism and republicanism to focus their combined strengths in a single broad Irish patriotic party.
With a fresh focus on how noisy the so-called ‘Naughty Corner’ of independent and small party MLAs will be in the Stormont Chamber, it’s clear the Left and Greens gained at the expense of nationalism and republicanism rather than unionism.
Could socialism be the cement which bonds a future Irish Nationalist Republican Party between the SDLP and Sinn Fein? And by socialism, I stress the ideological brand of Irish socialism as both the rebel Labour and official Tory candidates were devastated electorally in the Stormont poll.
However, the long-term lesson from the recent poll was that the turnout is getting dangerously close to the 50 per cent mark, so how representative of the Northern Ireland population and their views are the 108 MLAs who were elected on a turnout of 54.2 per cent?
While not wishing to dilute the importance of combating the effects on individuals and families of austerity and poverty, as well as the need to address problems in health, job creation and education, the current mandate needs to also urgently address the pressing issue of how they involve more voters in the democratic process?
This can be done by integrating a three-stage blueprint into the Programme for Government. Firstly, the Assembly must pass legislation making voting compulsory as it exists in Australia.
It would be a pundits’ paradise if Northern Ireland returned a 94% turnout rather than 54%. Chances are the state would become more pro-Union, making the chances of a border poll virtually impossible.
Secondly, Northern Ireland should follow the example of Scotland and lower the voting age to 16. Ideally, the voting age should be reduced even further to 14.
This is where the third stage of this blueprint would emerge. On entering secondary level schools, each pupil would be required to take at least three years of Citizenship Studies where the importance of compulsory voting and getting involved in the democratic process would be clearly emphasised.
While it has been more than 40 years since I last had a Latin class, I can still repeat the verbs that were drummed into me in my early teens. The same philosophy about the importance of voting can be drummed into young people through the curriculum.
This is also where the youth wings of existing democratic parties can play a major role in this educating process in partnership with the schools and colleges.
The Republic of Ireland is waking up to life with a minority government in the Dail. The Assembly needs to waken up to the bitter reality that it does not want to create a situation where a power-sharing Executive represents only a minority of voters in Northern Ireland.
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.