Last week every newspaper carried at least one article in which pundits made their predictions for 2010. It was an invitation for rioting imaginations. But they missed a trick restricting themselves to one year. What about the decade to come?
How would we like politics in Northern Ireland, specifically, to look approaching the year 2020?
I have a very definite idea how I’d prefer business to be done.
As yet it remains a distant fantasy, but there are some developments which offer hope that it could, possibly (plausibly) be realised, if the will exists. However the events and developments which appear below are certainly not predictions. They represent a best case scenario.
Let’s look ahead.
As 2020 beckons politics in Northern Ireland have changed, utterly. The last decade has witnessed a transformation which swept away parochial parties in the province and established, effectively, a four party system, integrated with the rest of the Kingdom.
To cast an eye over the past ten years is to contemplate a transition from politics as communal, cultural battleground to a system preoccupied with the every day business of government, locally and nationally.
In retrospect, the first murmurs of the revolution to come could be detected, way back in 2010. That year saw the Conservatives sweep to a 42 seat majority in the House of Commons.
For the first time in a generation Northern Irish MPs took seats on the government benches. Four Conservatives and Unionists from Ulster would become eight, five years later, as the transition to normal politics gathered pace.
At the start of the decade an acrimonious leadership contest did not prevent the SDLP galvanising to achieve a creditable result in the general election. However fissures grew between representatives prioritising ‘social democracy' and the party’s more traditional, nationalist wing.
When David Cameron went to the polls, early in 2015, seeking a mandate for the Tories’ second term, three of the SDLP’s five Westminster MPs ran on the understanding that they would take the Labour whip in a new parliament.
Ballot papers in the 2015 general election had an unfamiliar appearance to local voters. Conservatives and Unionists stood again, eventually emerging from the poll as Northern Ireland’s biggest party. But alongside Labour Social Democrats were a coterie of Labour aligned unionists, drawn from a rump DUP, the UUP’s left fringe and former loyalist groups.
The Alliance party stood on the basis of the Liberal Democrats national manifesto and a Nationalist and Republican grouping comprising greener elements formerly within the SDLP and a reconstituted Sinn Féin, shorn of its abstentionist dogma, emerged.
When the Conservatives won a third term, in 2019, the new political landscape was more familiar. Candidates aligned with the three main UK parties contested seats in Northern Ireland, with the Nationalists and Republicans offering an outlet for those who could not reconcile themselves to parking the constitutional issue until a referendum might prove meaningful.
At Stormont traditional divisions proved more resistant to change. The Assembly in 2012 incorporated Northern Irish Conservatives, added to the UUP’s Assembly team, and a lunatic fringe of Traditional Unionists, but otherwise carve-up government continued unabated.
However, with Northern Ireland’s contribution at Westminster revitalised and a series of logjams paralysing the Executive, change became inevitable.
In 2014, having brokered a deal for the forthcoming general election with constitutional nationalists, Sinn Féin finally dropped its opposition to weighted voting in the Northern Ireland Assembly. A cross community coalition of Conservatives and Unionists, centrist SDLP MLAs and Alliance emerged after a series of heated discussions and party meetings.
With little alternative, an opposition reflecting a Labour bent and unreformed nationalist predilections, either Irish or Ulster, began to cooperate closely.
The transformation in local politics would not be tested against the electorate until 2015, when Northern Ireland’s public showed its appetite for the new configuration. Heavy losers were the TUV, whose obstructionist rhetoric was rapidly becoming redundant and the unreconstructed wing of Sinn Féin, weakened irreparably by Republican infighting over the decision to drop abstentionism.
Northern Ireland’s reshaped political scene has enabled it to prosper as the United Kingdom has emerged, slowly, from recession. Participating in national economic arguments has proved the surest way to recovery. The province certainly shared national pain, as a new Conservative government struggled to contain the deficit, but equally, it flourished as the upturn saw an increase in private investment.
Although, at the start of the decade, its education system was teetering on the brink of transfer chaos, a national culture of decentralisation has allowed parents in Northern Ireland to wrest control of their children’s schooling away from, occasionally erratic, local ministers.
In 2020 most children are educated in integrated schools, a result which is particularly apposite. Before the ’Swedish model’ became common political currency during the ’noughties’, Ulster parents were already using their own initiative to set up excellent and neutral schools.
And as political arguments normalise, division in Northern Ireland’s society has become less pronounced, although of course it remains. Sectarianism persists as a unique subset of social problems which, otherwise, are not so very different to those existing throughout the United Kingdom.
As a long serving Northern Ireland manager, now in his second spell in charge, is wont to say, ’onwards and upwards’. He deserves to be listened to, he’s taken us to two successive World Cups and a European Championship.