You may not have noticed, and I wouldn’t blame you, but there’s an election going on the island. In Northern Ireland to be exact, where a new Assembly is due to be put in place on March 2. That’s around three weeks from now.
I haven’t been in Northern Ireland since the Assembly was dissolved, so I can’t tell you whether the posters are even up yet. But as far as the media are concerned, something weird seems to be happening. I searched the pages of the main Northern Ireland newspapers over the weekend – the Belfast Telegraph, the Newsletter, the Irish News – and you’d be very hard pressed to discover there’s an election on at all.
It’s early yet, and no doubt there’ll be lots of coverage as the election heats up. But so far, it’s eerily quiet. There’s been one opinion poll so far, as far as I can tell, and it shows Sinn Féin and the DUP running neck-and neck to become the largest party — the DUP down a little and Sinn Féin up a little. That may or may not be maintained — there seem to be early signs the DUP has been damaged by the “ash for cash” fiasco.
It would of course be depressing if this election turns out like so many in the past, as a restatement of tribal loyalties. But there is the intriguing possibility that instead, this time we’ll see a referendum on which of two women is most trusted by the people of Northern Ireland. Because for the first time in political history on this island, the leaders of the main political parties in a significant election are both women. And the differences between them, at this early stage, are quite striking.
Arlene Foster has been in power, and appears to have been damaged by it. She is struggling to maintain her hold on her own party, and its loyalty, and may have to bang a lot of tribal drums to ensure that she is not done-in by the election outcome. Michelle O’Neill, on the other hand (despite having been a member of the cash for ash government) is presenting herself as an entirely new face. She has said repeatedly that she sees her job as being to bind up wounds.
So there is a real possibility that this will be a contest between a forward-looking, fresh-faced leader on the one hand, and a tired and damaged older leader on the other. Both women are, though, still young — there’s only a few years between them, and it will be fascinating to see how the personality images evolve.
What’s equally intriguing, though, is that, so far, neither of them has dug the kind of hole that it would be impossible to climb out of after the election. They both give off the signs of being able to work together. Neither has so far played the tribal card in a way that would make relationships impossible (although both have surrogates that are well capable of making that sort of noise).
The result will matter, of course. If it should be the case that Sinn Féin manages to pass out the DUP, that will open up an entirely unpredictable sequence of events. But if the status quo emerges after the election, with the DUP able to field a First Minister, even if the gap has narrowed considerably, there will be, I’m guessing, hope that power-sharing can be sustained.
And that’s more crucial than we’ve taken into account. For most of us “down here”, even though we love our politics, there’s nothing more boring than a Northern Ireland election. But be certain of one thing. Right now, the more boring it is, and the more predictable the outcome, the better it will be for everyone on this island.
That’s because Northern Ireland faces an existential threat from Brexit. It’s a far deeper threat, potentially, than anything we face in the rest of the island.
In our case, the threat is economic. That’s real, and in a worst-case scenario it could be catastrophic. There is no doubt that already, civil servants are warning ministers that they are going to have to pull in their horns when it comes to public spending.
Homelessness and health care crises are going to have to wait, they’re saying, until stability is restored.
But in Northern Ireland there is a real danger that Brexit will lead to increased political conflict.
My youngest daughter Sarah is an independent woman in her 30s. She was 10 when the first IRA ceasefire was announced, followed six weeks later by the loyalist cessation. Because Sarah never lived in Northern Ireland, her life wasn’t shaped and tempered by violence. But for thousands of her contemporaries, violence was the defining factor in their development into adulthood.
More than 20 years have passed since then. We have lived through a half-century on our island — that’s three generations — characterised for roughly half the time by a violent and life-taking conflict, and for the other half by a growing concentration on economic, social and cultural co-operation.
If an entire generation of children and young people have been able to grow and develop in a time when daily violence is becoming a distant memory, that is an incredible political achievement. One of the great symbols of that achievement has been the disappearance of a physical border.
Many of us can still remember when the border was more than just physical — not just a crossing point between two pieces of land, but a barrier between two people. For many it came to be seen as a constant reminder that there was them and there was us. No one on this island wants to see a day when that mindset would ever be allowed or encouraged to reappear.
It’s often forgotten now that part of the underpinnings of that peace process was a set of principles, first enshrined in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 and used to inform every subsequent development in the peace process. Those principles were actually written by loyalists like David Ervine and Gusty Spence, and they included, among other things, the right to live wherever one chooses without hindrance, and the right to equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, sex or colour.
In many ways the disappearance of the border — the hearts and minds border as much as the physical one — was one of the core illustrations of the efficacy of those principles, articulated at a time when people were struggling to find ways to lay down the gun.
The hearts and minds border still exists, of course. A bitter and divisive election now would exacerbate it, and Brexit carries the real threat of adding back the physical border. The British Government says it doesn’t want that, but it’s harder and harder to see how it can be avoided.
That, above all, is why power-sharing must re-emerge after the election. So, if it stays quiet, if no tribal drums are banged, if no implacable positions are adopted, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill will be doing us all a considerable service. We should wish them both well.