March 2017 has seen the political dynamics in this part of the world change dramatically, starting with the Northern Ireland’s snap election results, which over a little a week ago had stunned everyone.
One thing that is without a doubt, is that it was a historic election, an election that has changed the face of the province, and it has provided Nationalism with a much-needed energy boost, to the point where they are now almost equal to that of Unionists within the Northern Irish Assembly. There has been a real buzz about the communities since the result and many are hopeful that changes for the better are about to come. While others remain sceptical and believe that the period of negotiations between the two largest parties will end in gridlock; therefore, a period of direct rule from Westminster or another general assembly election is inevitable.
As Unionists come to terms with losing their one-time unmovable majority position within the assembly, the language and rhetoric from the DUP over the past few days has been disheartening. Rather than reflecting on their tone and behaviour in the lead up towards the election, as well as in their disappointing results, humility is nowhere to be seen. In fact, their stance seems to have only hardened by blaming the media for bias reporting and ‘fake news’, and by also claiming that Unionism needs to be united by making pacts and ensuring voting transfers.
When reading Arlene Foster’s statements on the matter, I couldn’t help but think that she has learnt absolutely nothing from the election. The vast majority of the residents of Northern Ireland want to see a different approach to Northern Irish politics, they want less sectarianism and more pluralism, they want rights and respect to be afforded to all regardless of their creed. The rise of the centrist and more progressive parties highlight this. Even Sinn Féin have made attempts to go beyond the Nationalist/Republican agenda in favouring policies that are forward-thinking for all citizens. The DUP seem to have either missed this obvious revelation due to tunnel vision or have chosen to completely ignore it. Blaming Mike Nesbitt and the UUP for the fall of Unionism majority is overall counter productive. Mike Nesbitt had a vision that went beyond the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality, asking his supporters to transfer votes on a cross-community basis was brave and commendable. Many UUP supporters had followed his example and transferred their votes to more progressive parties like the SDLP, Alliance and Green Party. However, Mike’s gamble had not paid off and the DUP boogyman mantra of ‘Gerry Adams – Sinn Féin’ had ultimately succeeded by instilling a fear amongst the majority of Unionist voters.
Gerry Adams had stated that he believed the watershed election results highlight that a united Ireland was achievable but that it was imperative to persuade Unionists of the benefits of it and that any form of a united Ireland must be one they would be comfortable with. There has been much talk amongst commentators that the moment is right to start the ground work for achieving a united Ireland, whilst others have dismissed the notion thinking it out of hand and presumptuous. However, the social and political environment is changing swiftly on the British isles as developments in the Republic of Ireland and Scotland are making an impact on the British status-quo and Unionism.
The Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny had stated yesterday that a referendum will be held in the forseeable future on whether or not Irish citizens who do not reside in the Republic of Ireland should be able to vote in the Irish presidential elections. This means that Irish passport holders in Northern Ireland could be given the civic right to engage in politics in the south of the island. The significance of this is unparalleled to none in recent years. It would not only endorse the principle of self-determination for Irish citizens in the North of Ireland but would also enhance cross-border political relations. Furthermore, having an electoral populace from Northern Ireland could shake up the usual political suspects of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Sinn Féin are already the third largest party in the Dáil Éireann and they are doing very well in the opinion polls down south. Given that Sinn Féin is the largest Nationalist party in Northern Ireland, the difference in the vote in the presidential election could very well be tipped in their favour. That means the political parties down south may now have to start taking a real interest in the north.
Additionally, Fianna Fáil’s leader, Micheál Martin had announced that his party are to publish a 12-point plan within the next few months to strengthen economic, political and educational ties between the Republic and Northern Ireland in order to pave the way for a united Ireland. Much of the provisions of the white paper are based on those of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement; however, the roles would then be reversed with Britain being a co-guarantor. Although this is a very welcomed development in terms of support for the main Nationalist objective and one can appreciate the tone of the message; nevertheless, Martin’s haste to dismiss Sinn Féin’s call for a border poll prior to Brexit is not ideal for those of us who are worried about the effects of leaving the EU will have on Northern Ireland. Fianna Fáil’s united Ireland game tends to be at a slow pace.
The other significant announcement that came out today was from the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and it really has thrown the spanner in the works for the British establishment. In her speech, she had stated that Scotland will move towards having a second independence referendum with the aim to have it take place between Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019. The period for this would be ideal for the Scottish people as they would then know what the final deal on Brexit is and to make their decision before the UK officially leaves the EU and so that Scotland could potentially gain readmission rather quickly for EU membership if they do so wish it. We know that Theresa May is against Scotland having a second referendum as the Tories already have their hands full with the Brexit negotiations and it is ultimately Westminster’s decision whether or not a second referendum should be held under a Section 30 Order. However, if it is refused or even delayed until after Brexit, it would be nothing short of a slap in the face for the Scottish people. This is precisely the problem with the Union of Great Britain – it is supposedly one of being equal in partnership with England but in reality the devolved states are nothing but minor parties to their game.
Chip, chip, chip – that is exactly what is happening to British Unionism. The irony of it is that Brexit has been the catalyst for it. In the arrogance and entitlement that stems from the Unionist mindset, they have failed to recognise the growing discontent from Irish and Scottish Nationalists with the status-quo. Now the desire to disassociate from the excesses of the Bullingdon Brigade in Westminster has never been more strong. The writings on the wall and the message is that change is coming.