John Downing: ‘The big two still dominate in the North, but sands are now shifting’
Shoe-horned in between two elections, talks aimed at ending the 26 months of stalemate in the North get under way today, with more hope than confidence.
With counting finally concluded for local elections, you can take a glass half-empty or half-full view. On the downside the hegemony of the “big two” – the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin – remains largely intact.
Sinn Féin’s overall vote share was slightly down but still on a strong 23.2pc. The DUP was just a shade ahead with 24.1pc.
But in a more positive view, the significant gains by the cross-community Alliance Party, lesser gains for the Green Party, and some good news for the SDLP in Derry can be seen as a political signal. It surely feeds into the community revulsion at the murder of Lyra McKee in Derry on April 19, and resultant calls on the mainstream politicians to make power-sharing work.
In a similar vein, since Lyra McKee was openly gay, the election of the DUP’s first gay candidate, Alison Bennington, was also a positive development.
The party is opposed to legislating for same-sex marriage in the North and that this is one of the main sticking points in getting Stormont up and running again.DUP leader Arlene Foster and her party HQ had overcome internal opposition to Cllr Bennington’s candidature. It suggests some means can be found to tackle what remains a vexed issue.
Similarly, a complex package of legislation had been almost agreed upon in talks back in February 2018 to resolve the deadlock over the status of the Irish language. The DUP pulled out at the last moment because they believed they could not sell it to their membership.
But if the political will is there – the devices can be found. That is the stuff of politics.
The two main parties still have to be reckoned with and voters have not really chosen to punish them for their neglect of duty.
Northern Ireland politics are still dominated by Orange and Green – and until they learn the value of compromise there is little real hope of ending this torturous stalemate.
But the success of the Alliance Party – which went from 32 council seats up to 53 – does show that many voters want to move away from the polarisation that has dogged Northern politics for far too long.
The senseless murder of Lyra McKee remains a strong motivating factor for greater agreement. The two governments will keep a close eye on proceedings.
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney will meet Northern Ireland Minister Karen Bradley today, and tomorrow ministers from Dublin and London will meet in London for a full session of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.
Time is short for these talks as the next election, for the European Parliament, is on Thursday fortnight, May 23.