Alex Kane: It is local parties who are treating Stormont with contempt
At what point would it have suited the SDLP and Sinn Féin for Theresa May to have announced a general election?
I only ask, because Colum Eastwood accused her of “ throwing a grenade into the middle of our peace process,” while Michelle O’Neill further accused her of showing a “blatant disregard for the people of Northern Ireland.” A spokesperson from one of the smaller parties—whose name I can’t recall—said the prime minister was “treating the place and talks process with contempt.”
Let’s face it, if the PM had waited until there was a deal done in Northern Ireland she could have been waiting for months, years even: she might as well have waited for Godot as wait for the green light from Stormont Castle. The latest talks process has been rumbling on since early March and James Brokenshire had already extended it until early May. Since we now know that May 3 is when parliament will be dissolved, it seems likely that the PM could already have postponed her announcement by a couple of weeks to buy us some extra time.
If anyone is treating Northern Ireland with contempt it is clearly some of our own political parties. We’ve already had two Assembly elections in less than a year, with a third one now a very distinct possibility. The Stormont House Agreement and Fresh Start are gathering dust. Brokenshire will have to step in with emergency legislation. Civil servants are running the country; which means we’re back to the days of the ‘democratic deficit.’ The nineteenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement has come and gone and we’re still in crisis talks.
Even if a deal is put in place—which I still think is more likely than not—you could throw a stick into a crowd thousands of times before hitting someone who believes that the latest deal will be any more durable than the rest of them. Everyone blames everybody else for the serial failures; but since the Assembly/Executive has been blighted with them since the first Assembly election in 1998, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that a durable, consensual, genuine form of power sharing is, in fact, impossible. Put the blame for failure wherever you want to, but you’re still left with the reality that our ‘peace process’ is remembered more for stagnation than for progress.
Meanwhile, it seems like only five minutes ago that the DUP and Sinn Féin were putting the boot into the UUP and SDLP; yet now the subject of pacts is back on their collective agendas. The SDLP, in the words of former leader Margaret Ritchie on Wednesday afternoon, “do not do electoral pacts.” But just a few hours later, Colum Eastwood said that, while not interested in a pact based on unionism versus nationalism: “I will speak to anybody who wants to retain our membership of the EU and protect our citizens from a hard Brexit.”
That leaves him, in terms of the big five parties, with Alliance (who won’t do a deal under any circumstances) and Sinn Féin (who would like an ‘understanding’ in places like South Belfast, Upper Bann and Fermanagh/South Tyrone). Eastwood is in a difficult spot: he won’t be keen on the fact that SF don’t take their Westminster seats (which means they have no anti-Brexit voice there); but he knows that he’s under pressure in South Down, South Belfast (particularly if the unionist pact includes that seat) and Foyle and can’t afford to take a hit in any of them. And since he owes no favours to the UUP’s Robin Swann he may be willing to be more flexible that Ritchie would have been. That said, I’d still be surprised by a formal pact.
Unionists—as I wrote in Wednesday’s Irish News—will be considering the possibility of a pact in East Belfast (not as essential, though, as 2015); North Belfast (increasingly tight); South Belfast (a possible gain); Fermanagh/South Tyrone (impossible to hold without one, but not guaranteed even if there is one); Upper Bann (which could become a problem if the SDLP/SF reach an ‘understanding’); Newry/Armagh (although it looks unlikely for a unionist) and possibly North Down (where both the UUP and DUP might find Lady Hermon’s stance on the EU—she was one of only 13 MPs who voted against the general election on Wednesday—easier to exploit). The present unionist/nationalist balance is 11/7. 12/6 is possible; but so is 8/10 if the SDLP/SF reached their own deal. In other words, very high stakes for all four parties.
With seven weeks to go this is a long, long election. It will be the most polarising campaign in my lifetime, I suspect—both here and across the rest of the United Kingdom. One thing is certain, though: on June 9 we will have a clearer answer to the question, ‘How stands the geographical/constitutional future of the United Kingdom?’