We could be all be into a new political era without noticing

Where the next wave of energy is to come from, and where it will leave unionism versus nationalism, is unguessable  
Where the next wave of energy is to come from, and where it will leave unionism versus nationalism, is unguessable  

THERE'S hiding in plain sight, and there’s not seeing the nose on your own face. We could be into a new era without really noticing it.

There are new leaders in two of the five main parties, Arlene Foster, Colum Eastwood, in each case more than twenty years younger than their predecessors - a bright and forceful unionist leader, a vague nationalist who hopefully is not as ineffectual as he at first sounds.

One further element makes this – possibly – a whole new age. The second biggest party is clearly missing a good second row, with the lacklustre Conor Murphy seemingly lined up to succeed when Sinn Féin’s one starry northern figure finally goes.

If Mike Nesbitt comes out of an unreadable downtime with something more constructive than a policy of out-hardlining Foster, we’ll have two unionist parties looking comparatively sharp.

Perked-up unionism facing stale nationalism is the opposite of the state of play for several decades.

Pre-Troubles, the opposing communal mindsets – it would be a stretch to call them philosophies – looked dramatically different, a situation reversed piece by piece during the Troubles.

Even thrown into disarray by the civil rights agitation unionism retained clout; powerless nationalism sulked.

Over the next years while nationalism separated out into physical force republicanism and constitutionalists, reformers, unionism splintered.

It became unchallengeable to observe that new nationalist confidence faced demoralised unionism, generally inarticulate.

But the contrast has been less stark for some time now. The long, unproductive anti-climax since 1998 and the eventual stalemate at Stormont has worn nationalism down.

‘New nationalism’ arguably coasted on John Hume’s legacy and the emergence of civilianised republicanism, a fitful business of stop and start.

Unionism today is hardly inspiring, but it faces parties running on empty, minus the dynamism and vision that once set the pace.

If unionist votes hold up, it will be clear that lack of vision has been rewarded rather than penalised.

It will mean their voters accept that unionists are dug into structures whose originating idea they dislike and whose spirit they flout, but where they enjoy jobs and patronage.

Whereas nationalists look increasingly uninterested, their young turned off, dismayed by the Stormont spectacle, perhaps on their way to being a community alienated all over again – if this time peaceably, more apolitical or anti-political than potentially disruptive.

Next May’s election may see the newish phenomenon of a flattened nationalist vote unmistakeably headed into a pattern of decline.

Well, as an overall picture this may be overstated. It’s easier to point up the weakness in northern Sinn Féin and the SDLP - and incidentally, the absence of drive in Alliance - than to find potential for development in the DUP or a smidgen of settled vision in the Ulster Unionist Party.

We’re not talking spirited, constructive unionism, just some internal potential.

Not much visible in nationalism, bereft of outside stimulus. As the Republic’s politics adjust post-Tiger, northern nationalism in terms of Irish government priorities was always going to be relegated.

First the SDLP slipped off Irish radar as the peace process took shape, the post-Hume party struggling to focus while republicans demanded and got the bulk of attention.

The southern political class logged Sinn Féin’s arrival in the Dáil with abiding distaste.

In turn republicanism has focused its energy in the Republic, where its younger faces have ability the northern branch conspicuously lacks.

The debacle turned u-turn on benefits could hardly have been handled worse.

The committee-think that plotted each step the Adams/McGuinness leadership took in the first years created the impression of a talent reservoir, which it turns out does not exist. An injection of ability via new arrivals never happened.

Maybe a cadre of ex-prisoners as advisers repelled as many potential recruits as it rewarded old hands.

McGuinness has had to front up and fill the gap with folksy quasi-charisma, maintaining some sense of momentum by modelling calm and patience while Peter Robinson flatly refused to show leadership.

But as time goes on the one-man band syndrome looks ever thinner, unsurprising in what was once a collective enterprise, and proud of it.

The Derry man retreating to Derry may re-invigorate the party there, or it might point up local strains and stresses. Stormont 2016 is hardly an arena of triumph.

Either way, as the Republic’s election campaign heats up northern politics look becalmed, the major shift of the last century in questionable shape.

Where the next wave of energy is to come from, and where it will leave unionism versus nationalism, is unguessable.