North's taste of 'normal' election

 

THE DOGS not barking in this Northern Ireland Westminster election are more important than those that are. Agreement to transfer justice and policing powers to the powersharing Executive, and the appointment of David Ford as justice minister, have removed a disabling factor from Northern politics.

As a result this is a more “normal” election about UK priorities, however marked by the continuing political and sectarian divides. Completion of the devolution process clears the way for parties to prove they are capable of leading it forward – not least by defending Northern interests if there is a hung parliament in Westminster.

There are signs the parties are responding to the opportunity. The SDLP insists it will oppose budgetary cuts imposed by a Tory government, create jobs, protect Northern interests and will participate in Westminster, rather than concede seats to abstentionist Sinn Féin in an effort to maximise the nationalist vote. The DUP is defending its nine Westminster seats on a programme that justifies its record in office and equally commits its MPs to exploit any UK electoral impasse. It vehemently opposes the UUP’s alliance with the Conservatives; but it is still willing to play politics with them in the interests of securing unionist majorities in closely fought constituencies – just as Sinn Féin invites the SDLP to do in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. For their part the UUP expects to influence a Conservative government if one is formed. The Alliance party hopes to benefit from the Liberal Democrats’ good performance in Britain.

Thus the old divides intrude heavily on the newer politics. This is only to be expected after the transfer of such major political powers in the devolution settlement. Westminster elections become proxies for the Assembly ones, rather than vice versa as was the case under direct rule. The same thing is happening in Scotland and Wales, as UK devolution removes several key issues from their Westminster agenda. The unionist parties will co-operate to prevent a Sinn Féin leader becoming first minister next year. Peter Robinson must do well this time to preserve his leadership of the DUP, Sir Reg Empey has taken a real gamble with his Conservative alliance, and Margaret Ritchie wants to make her own mark as the new SDLP leader.

These should be seen as the everyday politics of survival in the setting of a functioning devolution system, just as much as they recall older dreariness. Steering politics towards a competition between alternative ways to run devolution and defend the North’s interests in London is a real responsibility for its political leaders. If they cannot demonstrate this is possible, the settlement will erode over time. The same stricture applies to cross-channel parties. Secretary of State Shaun Woodward’s warning that the Conservative-UUP alliance threatens to undermine the independent role of his office in brokering the agreement is to the point. The settlement is not yet durable enough to sustain such a reversion. Taoiseach Brian Cowen is on a better course when he says “we are all on a common journey together where we have not yet decided on the destination”.