Northern Ireland’s voters have sent politicians a clear message
A significant portion of the electorate is making a plea for a move from polarised to a more accommodating form of politics
DUP leader Arlene Foster with Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill at the Lyra McKee funeral in Belfast last month. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
Ian Knox had a good cartoon in the Irish News on Saturday. It showed the leaders of the Alliance and Green parties, Naomi Long and Clare Bailey, striding along arm in arm, with Long’s striking flame hair cascading down her back.
In the background were an Orangeman and a Catholic cleric looking on, with the former observing: “Politics hasn’t changed at all – it’s still Orange and Green.”
Long’s hair is more red than orange, but the gag worked. The big talking point of the local elections in Northern Ireland was the major success of Alliance and, coming from a much lower base, the Greens.
Not only has Alliance expanded its power base across Northern Ireland, but the “Alliance surge” has provided great momentum for Long as she embarks on her campaign to win the third seat in the three-seater European Parliament election in Northern Ireland on May 23rd.
The DUP and Sinn Féin are shoo-ins for the first two seats, with the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and the Traditional Unionist Voice also in the hunt for the third seat – that is, assuming the election goes ahead.
But the cartoon succeeded on another level as well because regardless of the gains by Alliance and the Greens, and also by People Before Profit which jumped from one to five seats, politics in Northern Ireland is “still Orange and Green”.
There is some message to be deciphered from Alliance increasing its representation from 32 seats to a whopping 53, and from the Greens rising from four to eight seats. Yet at the end of the day the DUP and Sinn Féin remain the leading parties.
Sinn Féin perhaps was taught a little humility in Derry where the SDLP regained some lost ground, although the SDLP will be disappointed to see its overall number of council seats reduce from 66 in 2014 to 59 now. But not half as deflated as the UUP, which dropped from 88 to 75 seats.
Disappointment too for Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice which won six seats compared to 13 in 2014. And Peadar Tóibín can’t be too happy for his Aontú party to take just one seat, in Derry.
Sinn Féin’s share of the overall vote, if slightly down from the 2014 local elections, is a healthy 23.2 per cent. It won 105 seats, the same as five years ago. The DUP increased its vote by one point to 24.1 per cent, although its number of seats dropped from 130 to 122.
The easy-to-decode message here is that if there is a deal to be done when the Irish and British governments and the North’s five main parties get around the table from Tuesday on it is that the DUP and Sinn Féin who will be the chief deal-makers.
If there are compromises to be struck on issues such as the Irish language and same-sex marriage and whatever else is thrown into the negotiating pot then chiefly it will be for Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds, and Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill to make the hard calls.
But equally Foster and McDonald should not miss that the achievement of Alliance in particular involved a significant portion of the electorate making a plea for a move from polarised to a more accommodating form of politics.
All the parties, including the DUP and Sinn Féin, acknowledged that on the doorstep, particularly in the wake of the murder of journalist and writer Lyra McKee, the recurrent plea they heard was for politicians to get powersharing back working again and to reinstate the Northern executive and assembly.
Dissident republican Gary Donnelly topping the poll in one of the Derry council wards suggests that not everyone was heeding the public revulsion at the actions of the New IRA in murdering McKee, but nonetheless that local result doesn’t negate the larger message.
The electorate also seemed to send out a subliminal signal that getting a deal is far from impossible. In February last year, according to numerous sources, the DUP and Sinn Féin under proposed labyrinthine legislation had found a way to address the Irish language issue, although in the end the DUP could not sell it to its grassroots. That could be revisited if the will is there.
The election of the DUP’s first openly gay candidate, Alison Bennington, and the decision by Foster and party HQ to stand by her in the face of some internal criticism, appeared to indicate that key matter also might be resolved even if it might take some Jesuitical politicking to get there.
After the locals in Northern Ireland a lot has changed and not a lot has changed, yet the hard nudge to the politicians from the voters seems to be to seize this opportunity and get a deal done.