The North is as good as solved – but unfortunately it’s going nowhere

TWO minutes after the BBC’s exit poll was announced last Thursday night, Iain Dale, the Conservative commentator, blogged: “Don’t panic chaps and chapesses.

My view is that by 4am this poll will have been shown to be wrong. It seems too incredible that the Lib Dems are only predicted to get 59 seats. I’ll run naked down Whitehall if that turns out to be true.” In fact, of course, the exit poll was almost spot on. Liberal Democrats who speculated their man might even end up in 10 Downing Street now look far more foolish than Iain Dale.

Still, I’m glad I made no such promises in my column last week. In fact, my call of the 18 seats in the North was not too far off the mark. True, I didn’t see the Alliance Party dramatically snatching First Minister Peter Robinson’s East Belfast stronghold: he was in bigger trouble than anyone, except perhaps he himself, understood. Whether the feisty Naomi Long can hold the seat against a less tarnished DUP candidate should there be another British election soon is an open question, however.

My second mea culpa is Fermanagh and South Tyrone: I was four votes out. Sinn Féin’s retention of the seat is a tribute to republicans’ ability to mobilise volunteers in an old-fashioned sectarian tussle.

Perhaps less surprising was Sir Reg Empey’s failure to dislodge Rev Willie McCrea in South Antrim. Three factors failed to swing it for the UUP leader. Some Catholics did rally to the flag of moderation, but not enough to make a difference. The Alliance Party’s vote also held up remarkable well even without a household name on the ballot paper. Most significantly, however, the vote for Jim Allister’s hardline Traditional Unionist Voice collapsed, in South Antrim as elsewhere across the Unionist heartlands.

The TUV’s inability to dent significantly the DUP vote, even in über-fundamentalist North Antrim, was one of the key takeaways from last week. The other was the bankruptcy of the republican dissidents. The car bomb they placed outside Newtownhamilton police barracks injured two people and highlighted the PSNI’s vulnerability, but they failed in their political intent: to drive unionists into the hands of extremists in the hope they would wreck the Northern settlement and create the political space to put Irish unity notionally back on the agenda.

I was in Newtownhamilton in June 1998, the day before the first elections to the Stormont assembly. The INLA hoped to do much the same as the Continuity IRA does today – scare unionists into thinking there is a deliberate “Armalite and ballot box” strategy to increase republican leverage inside the political institutions by attacking from the outside.

In 1998, the bomb worked – to an extent, at least. The number of unionists who turned out in those elections slumped from the high point achieved in the referendum the previous month. David Trimble was deprived of a majority of the unionist seats in the new parliament, hampering his ability to give much ground on IRA decommissioning for fear of handing the advantage to the DUP, the hardliners of those days.

Newtownhamilton was certainly a big factor. I remember those mistrustful faces on the Main Street that day. Logic determined the war was over – but it didn’t feel like it to people whose front windows had just been blown in.

This time it was different. The TUV was the sensation of last year’s European elections. A vote for Jim Allister was not just a way for unionists to register their displeasure at the DUP’s volte face on republicans in government, but laid down a marker about the devolution of policing and justice powers. Twelve years on, with that debate now in the past and the dissidents failing to wind up the Protestants to the same extent, the TUV’s was a protest vote, pure and simple. Scarcely any unionists really believe some Shinner-free nirvana is achievable, in this world anyway.

On the basis of last week’s results then, the TUV can confidently look to win just a single seat in next year’s Assembly elections; Jim Allister himself was the only candidate to achieve a quota. If, on the other hand, his candidates were registering between 9% and 12% in the solidly unionist constituencies, instead of 5% to 8%, that might have deprived unionists of a majority in the Executive making the whole agreement less attractive. It would also have given Martin McGuinness’ bid to become First Minister a significant boost and few believe Northern public opinion is ready for that.

So whoever becomes the British prime minister – and that’s anyone’s guess – they won’t find themselves in the same position as Tony Blair who for periods spent 40% of his time dealing with the North. David Cameron, David Miliband or whoever will scarcely have to devote a tenth of his diary to such endless sectarian deal-brokering. London and Dublin can breathe a big sigh of relief: the North is as good as solved. Backing for the agreement is solid. The idea of powersharing with an Irish dimension, considered dangerously, even heretically, avant garde when I was touting it around Orange halls is now de rigeur.

Is the North an unqualified success? Hardly. Sectarianism has merely been domesticated. Meanwhile, none of the four major parties has much by way of a big idea. The UUP had one – tying the North into the British body politic – but was spectacularly inept at selling the notion. Admittedly, it had to contend with violent media hostility. Some of its candidates were suspiciously undermined too, while rumours about DUP MPs were successfully kept out of the headlines – perhaps because they are not true.

So, the North is just one great happy family going nowhere. There is nothing by way of intellectual development on either the nationalist or unionist sides. The four parties can mobilise their communities, but not actually to do anything very much apart from vote. The North used to be characterised as an unstoppable force versus an immoveable object. Not any more.

Nowadays, all that unites the various factions is a determined desire to rip off the great British taxpayer. All the talk is of a concerted effort on the part of the 13 MPs taking their seats to band together to ensure spending is maintained, if not increased, while taxes are cut. Sixteen long years after the first IRA ceasefire and more than a decade after an island-wide economy became a reality, the addiction to public sector spending is as chronic as ever. The talk about incentivising the private sector is just that – talk.

The subsidy junkies’ case for ever-more shots of cash has become painfully weak but Whitehall continues with the treatment. The mounts are small in the big scheme of things; the thought of the DUP and SDLP squealing with pain if forced to go cold turkey is just too much for sensitive Treasury mandarins’ ears.

The same forces are at work in the rest of the so-called Celtic Fringe; it’s just that most of the elements of any so-called “rainbow coalition” there don’t profess to be unionists, supposedly looking to some national interest. How lucky Brian Cowen must count himself sometimes: pluralism has its downsides too.

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