"Martin McGuinness 2009" by Jaqian - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
The threat of Martin McGuinness as First Minister has trapped unionists in a self-destructive cycle.
The news from Stormont in 2015 was dominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin finally cobbling together a deal, but in 2016 preparations begin for an Assembly election.
The two parties concentrated on attacking their smaller rivals, after the announcement of the ‘Fresh Start’ document. They talk up their shared achievements and claim they’ve taken hard decisions in order to make progress for people in Northern Ireland.
However, the spirit of cooperation is unlikely to last very long, before we’re plunged into another bitter campaign, which will revolve around whether Sinn Féin becomes the largest party in the Assembly.
The threat of Martin McGuinness as Northern Ireland’s First Minister remains the Democratic Unionists’ electoral ‘trump card’. After Peter Robinson’s retirement, Arlene Foster will be charged with keeping Sinn Fein out of the top job. The DUP will look to shore up support by claiming it is the only party that can stop Sinn Féin topping the poll.
It’s an effective tactic, aimed at fending off unionist rivals, but it also encourages negative campaigning and deflects attention away from important issues, which affect voters’ everyday lives.
Under the original Good Friday Agreement the First Minister was drawn from the largest designation in the Assembly, unionist or nationalist. In 2006 the St. Andrews Agreement changed the system, so that the largest party at Stormont now has the right to nominate a First Minister. Opponents complain that the new rules were designed to frighten unionists into voting for the DUP, by raising the possibility that republicans might take a symbolically significant post.
That could be how things work out next year too, but, alternatively, maybe a Sinn Féin win is just the type of shock that politics, and unionism in particular, needs in order to shake it out of its negativity and complacency.
A recent opinion poll commissioned by the BBC and RTE confirmed that support for Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK is higher than ever before. Only 13% of people here want to see a United Ireland in the short to medium term. Majority backing for our current constitutional position, or the alternative of direct rule from Westminster, extends right across the community, among people from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds.
In other words, the Union is perfectly safe for the time being, and unionists have no reason to fear for their futures within the UK.
For the most part, though, unionist politicians reacted to the poll by gloating, rather than asking why their electoral strength doesn’t match the public’s constitutional preference. The tone unionism sets is still often petulant and defensive, rather than confident and outward-looking.
If the DUP runs a negative campaign next year, focussed on keeping Martin McGuinness out of the First Minister’s office, and it fails, unionists may be persuaded that a change of strategy or even realignment is necessary. After all, there are examples of politicians across the unionist parties, and indeed right across the Assembly, who have more in common with each other, than with traditional elements in their own parties.
They aren’t as fixated on cultural, religious or social hang-ups. They might even recognise, for instance, that same-sex marriage is inevitable, and would rather get on with passing the necessary legislation, rather than allowing that debate to derail other Assembly business repeatedly. They’d prefer to discuss policies, as opposed to flags or emblems and they’re driven by ambition to succeed in their chosen career, rather than profound attachments to ideology.
In simple terms, the world would not stop turning for unionists if Sinn Féin became the largest party. Unionism would almost certainly still form the biggest designation in the Assembly, and a majority when it came to important votes. Unionists would still likely occupy the greater share of Executive posts.
If a unionist party were to miss out on top spot, it might also prompt some hard-thinking about how to turn wide-spread contentment with the political status quo into votes at the ballot box. It might get unionism thinking about how it could be more constructive, more confident and extend its appeal to voters who are happy politically to remain within the UK, but still feel culturally Irish.
It might mean focussing less on ostentatious displays of Britishness, and more on the modern and inclusive aspects of being part of the United Kingdom. It would certainly involve explaining how Northern Ireland could become an increasingly safe, stable and prosperous place to live.
Defaulting to a hostile attitude toward things like the GAA and the Irish language would no longer be acceptable.
Perhaps most importantly, unionists couldn’t allow small, symbolic issues to continue to affect a vast, silent majority of people, who are more worried about jobs, services and the futures of their families. It would mean much less grandstanding over issues like flags or parades, and it might involve some hard conversations with traditional colleagues. Ultimately, though, it could revive unionism as an electoral force and make Northern Ireland a better place to live.
Neither would the fall-out necessarily affect unionism alone. If Sinn Fein were to become the biggest party, it might cause the SDLP to take a serious look at its future.
Its leadership contest produced a younger leader, with Colum Eastwood taking over from Alasdair McDonnell, but it focussed on personalities and style, rather than interrogating the party’s underlying philosophy. The SDLP will still go into the next election emphasising its nationalist credentials and competing with Sinn Féin for the United Ireland vote.
If the party is still substantially behind its main rival in 2016, it would have reason to reassess that strategy. Even voters who eventually want to get rid of the border see a United Ireland as a distant, long-term goal. The SDLP has an opportunity to allow the prevailing mood to shape its message and put nationalism on the back seat, in order to prioritise jobs, health, education and combatting poverty, in Northern Ireland.
It’s pretty depressing, but almost inevitable, that the Assembly election will be dominated by the identity of the First Minister, rather than debates about everyday issues. The parties show no sign that they’re prepared to back the legislation needed to appoint joint first ministers, rather than the current system of first minister and deputy first minister.
If Sinn Fein tops the poll, it will be a seismic shock, but ultimately it won’t affect the constitutional position one jot. With a little vision from rival politicians, it might even force a change in political thinking which would benefit Northern Ireland in the longer term and copper-fasten our place within the UK.