Is everybody back in the trenches?

Published: 29 May 2014 09:300 comments

When I started covering Fermanagh elections as a young reporter, things were pretty tight on the new District Council formed in 1973. So tight, in fact, that it took a year of wrangling even before a chairman was elected.

Then, there were 20 Councillors. The election returned 10 Unionists and 10 Nationalists. Sinn Fein didn’t contest elections and the DUP, formed only a few years before, didn’t win any seats.

So, with no Sinn Fein or DUP, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP were dominant within their own communities and there was a 50-50 split in the representation of Unionist and Nationalist in Fermanagh.

Who says things don’t change? Now look. We don’t even have our own Fermanagh-only Council, instead amalgamated with Omagh, and far from being 50-50, the population demographics have moved on to the point where Nationalists are by far the majority force in the west. Sinn Fein dominate the new Council, and while the Ulster Unionists have strengthened their premier position here, the DUP remain the main party Province-wide on the Unionist side.

Major change from 40 years ago, you may think, particularly when one considers the backdrop of bloody violence and strife that politics operated in away back then.

Or has it changed all that much in terms of politics?

What did you make of all the results, both locally and Province-wide? Despite all the superb analysis of commentators and journalists, it can be hard for us mere mortals to assess what it all really means. Especially when we see just about every party taking something positive from it all (excepting the imploding disaster of NI21!).

Maybe it all means nothing to you, and maybe you couldn’t care less. But as an interested outsider, I’ve been ruminating about a few things to emerge.

Firstly, the turnout. Fermanagh did well; while Enniskillen was a bit behind, turnouts in other areas of county were nudging 70 per cent. That’s a bit down on previous elections, but consider the fact that Northern Ireland-wide it just about squeezed over the 50 per cent and it shows that Fermanagh voters are keener than most to get out to the polling stations. Indeed, even though it is worrying that only about half of Northern Ireland people feel sufficiently connected to the political process to go out and vote, we compare favourably with Britain at about 34 per cent this time, and indeed many other democracies across the world are just as poor.

This time I took the deliberate decision not to vote. But looking at the turnout figures, I can’t honestly say that those people returned don’t have a fairly decent mandate.

So Northern Ireland voted.

How did they vote, then?

It is a very clear picture on the Nationalist/Republican side. Apart from a few localised successes, the SDLP revival hasn’t started and the Sinn Fein bandwagon drives on. Particularly so south of the Border, and it’s clear that the controversial arrest of their leader Gerry Adams didn’t do them any harm.

On the Unionist side, the scene is much more diverse. On Sunday, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt looked like the cat that got the cream; after years of decline, it would seem that his party is on the up, however the DUP like to demean it.

How did the Ulster Unionists at least arrest the decline and edge forward again. The common consensus would appear to be that the UUP has shifted to the right under Nesbitt. I noticed one post on social media by Tom Elliott showing an old advert for the UDR, urging voters not to be DUPed. And indeed, the UUP has been successful in attacking the DUP for what they see as being less than strong on the Maze, for example. For years, some local UUs have accused the DUP of stealing their clothes; are they taking their wardrobe back?

Yet surely nobody outside the hardliners imagines that the DUP, still the main party, is soft on flags and all the rest.

I thought, actually, that one incident demonstrated very well the problems that the DUP has in appearing strong to one constituency while statesmanlike in government. When a “selfie” (a photo on a mobile phone to you and me!) was posted on social media of Peter Robinson, Arlene Foster, Martin McGuinness and Mairtin O’Muilleoir at the launch of the Giro d’Italia, the reaction by certain victims and victims groups was fiercely critical to say the least.

In Fermanagh, it seemed to me that the UUs were successful in returning a number of serving Councillors, which was an endorsement of their work and reputation. The DUP here, meanwhile, had undoubtedly made progress due to the Arlene Foster factor on the Council at first; but without Arlene and missing Alison Brimstone and Bert Johnston, the party field of candidates did have an inexperienced look.

And when one factors in the votes cast for the TUV, the PUP and UKIP, it is hard to escape the fact that so-called liberal Unionists, or garden centre Unionists as they’re called, are staying away because they’ve nobody to vote for.

I wouldn’t bet on that. If the 48 per cent of voters who didn’t vote suddenly returned to the polls, we don’t know what way they would jump. If the above analysis is correct, they don’t have a “moderate” Unionist party to join; but be honest, even if Basil and John and Tina hadn’t got the NI21 into such a mess, there was never going to be queues of excited new voters around the block about to give them a Farage!

It’s said the garden centre Protestants and their Catholic counterparts are staying at home, and that the voters are mainly going out to vote for the party that will staunchly defend their tribe.

Maybe, I sigh, that’s the way it is. Maybe we can’t have a shared future, but simply a “benign apartheid” as someone once described it. As long as there’s something in it for everyone, eh?

Of course, if that is true, Unionists will be looking over their shoulder at the continuing changing demographics. If you look back to my opening paragraphs, and consider the changes over 40 years, and remember that the recent Census shows that Protestants are under 50 per cent and just a few percentage points ahead of the numbers of Catholics, it’s not rocket science to work out where it’s heading.

Can we share a society here?

I thought there were actually a few encouraging signs in the aftermath of the election. Mike Nesbitt was, I thought, pretty clear that his Ulster Unionists party won’t get caught up in flags and would look at a way forward on parades and the past. Nigel Dodds admitted he was never going to be Martin McGuinness’s best coffee buddy but would work in Government with him.

And Gregory Campbell’s challenge to the Unionist dissidents was to ask how they would deal with the fact that Sinn Fein get such a huge vote. (Yes, Gregory Campbell.)

And generally Unionists are talking up the strength of the Union.

Now that the elections are over, perhaps there is a little window for a little progress. Before the whole carry on starts again at next year’s election.

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