When I saw the sky-high voter turnout in Northern Ireland, I felt optimistic. Now I realise how foolish I was

I am at a loss at how the DUP will be able to enter power sharing with Sinn Fein successfully – each was given a mandate to never compromise with the other

Michael Hugh Walker
Sunday 05 March 2017 14:49 GMT
A mural is seen in a nationalist area of Belfast ahead of elections for the country's national assembly
A mural is seen in a nationalist area of Belfast ahead of elections for the country's national assembly (Reuters)

Northern Ireland had a choice this election and it was as stark as night or day; change or rot; warmth or hypothermia.

We were either voting for change, or we were voting for direct rule and the end of our devolution. If we voted as we always have for the last 10 years, I felt it would be a vote to no longer maintain the democracy my generation inherited – the one my parents’ generation forged – casting it off in deference to our worst tribal tendencies.

The DUP has tried so very hard over this election campaign to convince us it will cooperate the least and not compromise at all. For them, stubbornness is an undeniable virtue. But being stubborn entirely depends on what you’re being stubborn about. And stubbornness for stubbornness’s sake appears to be the DUP mantra, in a flailing attempt to prove themselves the biggest and baddest of all unionist parties – the din from the incessant rattling of their dusted-down sabres worked frantically to convince us of the same.

But then the turnout figures arrived early Friday morning, and strains of Otis Redding’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ began humming in my head.

The highest turnout since 1998. We had recognised the starkness of the choice; we had acted – 64.8 per cent of us, up 10 per cent on our 2016 election. That is a huge change.

My unshakeable faith had always lead me to believe that it was low turnout that was shackling us to our inadequate parties – high turnout had to equate to change. But as the trickle of the results became a tsunami, with half the seats declared mid-Friday, it looked like I’d be brutally wrong.

Northern Ireland election results: Who made gains and who lost out?

It seemed that Northern Irish voters had yet again been hypnotised by the sabre-rattling, with the DUP looking set to demolish the moderate unionist party, the UUP (their only realistic challenger for power). Otis had gone; all I could hear were the words of John Hewitt, sombrely declaring us a people “endlessly betrayed by our own weakness, by force, by famine... by the glittering fables that gave us martyrs when we needed men. This is our fate/ 800 years’ disaster.”

A higher turnout, yes, but bad old habits die hard and we yet again complied with Liam Clarke’s far too apt description of our elections as “sectarian head counts”.

Hope is cruel in our politics here. Again, it flashed its ankle to me in his election, and again I fell foolishly under its spell only to feel betrayed by our inability here to vote for drastic change.

As the picture filled out, it was clear the DUP would remain the largest party, while Sinn Fein would be their only potential partners in government.

I was furious. After everything the DUP had done before the election, and the bitterly tribal election they had run, that they’d remained the largest party endorsed those actions. They’ve and found out they can do whatever they want without serious repercussions. Apparently, their position at the top of our Assembly is immune to change.

I come from a unionist background and am a proud resident of Ballymena, the home of the Paisley dynasty. I would at first glance seem like the DUP’s kind of voter. But instead, I could not be more opposed, not just because of their history of homophobia, but their incompetence, arrogance and constant association with corruption.

As they have had over 30 members of the Northern Ireland assembly (MLAs) consistently since 2007, through a mechanism called the Petition of Concern, they effectively have had a veto in our assembly. They haven’t just used this to block gay marriage, despite a majority voting for it, but they have consistently used it as an impenetrable shield to protect themselves from scandal.

In 2013, they blocked an inquiry into the Red Sky scandal, in which a DUP Minister trying to maintain a government contract cancelled after the contractor was suspected of fraud, and in the last year they blocked attempts to investigate a government fund they helped establish, which awarded £1.7m to a charity run by a gang leader.

But it is our country’s most recent scandal about a renewable heating scheme that has snapped the camel’s brutalised back in two.

Brexit 'may reduce prospect of co-operation' in Northern Ireland

Essentially it appears that DUP Ministers (especially Arlene Foster, their leader and the country’s First Minister) were negligent in establishing an uncapped and unaudited scheme which subsequently now has a projected overspend of £450m – currently, £85,000 is being lost a day. To put that in context, 56.7 per cent of all our adults have less than £100 of savings; 24 per cent of all our kids live in poverty.

But the whiff of corruption has hung heavy over the “cash for ash” scandal, and the DUP’s extremely defensive reaction to it has been little less than extraordinary. For instance, Foster defamed a prominent member of their party when they became a whistleblower on the scheme.

She refused to temporarily step aside without prejudice and the party frustrated a public inquiry until it become politically impossible. At the same time, they pettily targeted the Irish-speaking community of Northern Ireland with a needless (and eventually reversed) cut.

In the end, the sickly Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister called time on the Executive and put us into an election, saying Sinn Fein could no longer stomach the DUP’s approach to power sharing.

From that point on, Sinn Fein and DUP spent the whole campaign simply digging their trenches. Coalitions are built and ran in no-man’s-land but both parties are dug in for what seemed like the long term – claims of being “home by Christmas” ring hollow; cooperation between both sides feels a world away. The DUP’s entire election platform was anti-Sinn Fein, with them mentioning that party’s name in vain more than they mentioned their own at all during their own manifesto launch.

The DUP needed to change tone and tact to find a coalition partner from the nationalist community (as they have to do to form a government), but their campaign has seen them run in the opposite direction.

I am at a loss as to how the DUP will be able to enter power sharing with Sinn Fein successfully – each was given a mandate to never compromise with the other.

And direct rule, the consequence of no government being formed, won’t just be a national embarrassment (us declaring to the world “We are incapable of governing ourselves”); it will be catastrophic. It leaves us with no budget, no voice for Brexit and it makes us directly governed by a Westminster government that couldn’t be less engaged from Northern Ireland. Any of those issues alone would be worrying, but the combination of all three is deeply unsettling.

While our peace will obviously never shift, the return of direct rule will be extremely painful, both for the day-to-day lives of our people and our ability to forge our own future, at a time when the divergence in our paths couldn’t be starker.

But this election has not been all negative. There is the beautiful electoral success and growth of the liberal, middle-of-the-road Alliance party, and there is the fact that the DUP did indeed suffer electorally. With the Assembly becoming 18 seats smaller, they were expected to lose 4 or 5. They lost 10. Crucially, this means they have lost their destructive veto: their shield from scandal and tool to prevent equal marriage.

With the DUP’s ferociously anti-Sinn Fein campaign losing votes, and causing Sinn Fein to grow enormously, I can only hope that it has punctured their supreme confidence sufficiently to recognise that they must compromise. The problem is that that same result may embolden Sinn Fein to not compromise at all.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP will need to, however; otherwise they embrace the disaster of direct rule, and on all our heads be it.

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