Don't Get Too Excited Just Yet
Now that we’ve had a few days to get used to the results, it’s interesting to see the consensus emerging.
Those of us who are broadly ‘progressive’ have seen the DUP take a kicking and it feels good. It was a decent result in so far as the sectarianism of the DUP lost out and there were encouraging results from the Greens and Alliance. Seeing Sinn Féin take some unionist scalps feels nice because it’s a direct challenge to the arrogance of Arlene Foster and the rest.
However, this ‘victory’ is bittersweet. The obvious caveat is that, of course, the DUP are still the largest party and that nothing much has changed in the order of the results. Foster is still hanging on as leader (but we’ll see how much longer she lasts) and even the DUP’s loss of the easy Petition of Concern is hard to stay excited about for long. Factor in the lonely TUV seat or even a few rogue UUP lads who would shore up any opposition to marriage equality and the pessimism seeps back in.
Though the main takeaway is that this was no progressive moderate youthful new victory for the post-Troubles generation. If anything it was the opposite. Unionism’s crumbling vote did not come from a swell from the newer parties but rather from a Nationalist surge. In our zero sum politics it just can’t be any other way. We can’t all win at once.
Rather than throw off the yoke of the past and embrace non-sectarian politics, Northern Ireland has entrenched the old “orange and green” for at least another election cycle. Now Sinn Féin ran on an equality ticket, and I don’t doubt individual MLAs’ commitment to that cause, but as a whole you cannot claim that a bigger turnout for Nationalism is the progressive victory we have been waiting for.
Mike Nesbitt paid the price for his pre-election bravery by suggesting he would be transferring to the SDLP, and while he showed poor leadership and had to go after a poor result for the UUP, his attempts to bring his party into the modern era should be applauded. While some UUP transfers did go the way of the non-Unionist parties, he was rewarded with failure and embarrassment rather than praise for chipping away at our old way of doing things.
Throughout our #28daysNI project we had voters young and old write about how they wished to see an end to tribalism. And while Alliance increased their vote share and the Greens held onto their two seats, it’s difficult to feel energised by a result where we see the two main parties returned with increased votes. The Greens are good on certain issues but realistically can’t have much impact while they remain so small, and Alliance aren’t the progressive champions we hold them up to be so long as they maintain that marriage equality and abortion reform are conscience issues.
We’ll just have to wait and see how the negotiations go, and the dual threat of #AE17b and/or direct rule being imposed makes the coming weeks even scarier than normal. RHI still hasn’t been sorted out, and nobody has a coherent vision for the island after Brexit. We could be in for an extended period of negotiation, and while it’s good to hope for the best, we need to make sure our representatives know how we feel. We cannot go back to direct rule.
It’s important to take the positive from our politics when we can, as it’s definitely a rare occurrence to feel good about anything these days. Savour every little victory while we can. But we can’t get complacent and think that we’re rumbling towards whatever vague version of progress we’ve been sold just because there is no longer a Unionist majority in Stormont. Change in and of itself is not enough. That nice post-election vibe should be enjoyed, but unfortunately it’s back to reality today.
There’s that “our wee country” mentality of us being somehow different to everywhere else is, that we are exempt from real criticism because of The Troubles. That’s nonsense. There are real practical things that can be improved on by your MLAs no matter their affiliation and no matter our past. No one is denying things are more complicated in Northern Ireland, but we can and should be demanding at least the bare minimum of competence from our political leaders.
Rather than wait for that wishy-washy centre ground to deliver us from the past, we need to keep banging on at the parties we have now to deliver real change. We need to continue to ask for more and to challenge everything at every turn. To make sure our politicians do their jobs, for everyone.