Leading article

Leading article: The winds of change upon us

Northern Ireland Assembly election 2017, Omagh Leisure centre, Co Tyrone. Pictured is First Minister Arlene Foster arriving for the count. Picture by Mark Marlow/Pacemaker press.

While it may often appear that the winds of political change will never arrive, the hint of a breeze can sometimes be followed by a storm of monumental proportions sweeping across our structures.

The 2017 Assembly election can only have profound consequences for both nationalists and unionists, those who are between the two main traditions and indeed the Irish and British governments.

For the first time not only since devolved powers were transferred through the 1998 Good Friday Agreement but also the implementation of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, unionists no longer hold the majority in a northern parliament.

This is by any standards a historic development, and amazingly one which looked further away than ever when the last poll only ten months ago left Arlene Foster and the DUP in a position of unprecedented strength.

When Mrs Foster became first minister, aged 45, and was then handed a firm personal mandate in May, 2016, many commentators, particularly those from a unionist background, predicted that she could look forward to holding power for two decades or more.

The DUP with 38 MLAs was a full nine ahead of Sinn Féin, even before the 16 Ulster Unionist seats were taken into account, and nationalism generally appeared to be in a confused retreat.

There was little overall enthusiasm for the Stormont executive, but the pattern across a number of years was that unionists mainly came out and voted for the status quo while nationalists seemed increasingly disillusioned and apathetic.

Suggestions from outside observers, including this newspaper, that the Executive was largely dysfunctional, and failing to deliver meaningful progress for any section of society, were not well received by many in the corridors of power, and a sense of despondency grew.

If Mrs Foster and her party had shown a small degree of generosity towards what was then the minority side, and paid what might be regarded as lip service towards nationalist aspirations, then to all intents and purposes she would have been untouchable for the foreseeable future.

What followed was a classic example of what happens when politicians from any background begin to believe that they are in office by right and allow their wider judgment to desert them.

Firstly, we had the EU referendum in June, when the DUP was always going to support the leave movement but could have quietly accepted that, regardless of the overall UK verdict, the remain camp would inevitably prevail here and then pragmatically deal with the fall-out.

Instead the DUP took an enormous donation from an unusual and obscure English-based pressure group, with Mrs Foster embarrassingly admitting she was unaware of a figure which turned out to be an eye-catching £425,000.

The pro-Brexit ad that appeared in the Metro newspaper

When it emerged that the DUP devoted most of its massive windfall to an advertising initiative in Britain, where it has never fielded candidates, and the rest of the Stormont parties had only spent a combined total of £19,000 on their campaigns, major alarm bells were ringing.

The Brexit crisis may have given a short term boost to the DUP but it also forced nationalists to start seriously considering constitutional issues for the first time in a generation.

It was widely believed that the Good Friday Agreement left key questions surrounded by what was described as constructive ambiguity, with unionists satisfied that partition was still in place as a line on a map but nationalists concluding that artificial boundaries had effectively disappeared.

Suddenly, nationalists had the unacceptable prospect of what quickly became known as a hard border thrown into their faces with the DUP, convinced with good reason that it could also dictate Westminster decisions, unable to conceal its glee.

Then, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal emerged under the watch of Mrs Foster's previous ministry, leaving tax-payers with a prospective bill of £500m for a scheme which looked designed to benefit a small but very well connected sector.

After the DUP leader, in a rare interview with this newspaper, insisted over RHI that she could not be aware of `every jot and tittle' within her own department, an enormously damaging sequence of events rapidly unfolded.

The attitude of the DUP, and specifically its former ironically titled minister for communities Paul Givan, towards the Irish language, was a central catalyst in demanding a response from all shades of nationalism.

By the stage when Mrs Foster notoriously compared the views of not only Sinn Féin in the north and south, but also by extension the SDLP, Alliance and all the main Dail parties to feeding a crocodile, we were effectively past the point of no return for the present DUP dominated arrangements.

It needs to be acknowledged that the DUP still needs to be regarded as a force with a significant if noticeably diminished mandate, just one seat instead of nine ahead of Sinn Féin, although Mrs Foster would be even weaker if the Ulster Unionists had not largely collapsed.

Across the Stormont chamber is a Sinn Féin group with massive momentum behind it, and SDLP and Alliance representations which have also increased their respective standings in percentage Assembly terms against many expectations.

The interparty negotiations which are about to get under way are taking place at a definitive stage when no options can be excluded, but, even if further legislation is required, a third election in the space of a year should be ruled out.

All the results from Friday need to be carefully considered across the board as we move into a new environment, but the words of one Nobel laureate, if slightly sexist in their 1960s context, are prescient.

As Bob Dylan once sang, `You don’t need a weatherman know which way the wind blows.'

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