Election 2017: Alex Kane on possibly the most important election in the history of NI

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

In his contribution to our election supplement, Alex Kane writes about the possibly unparalleled significance of this coming poll:

I was sitting in the public gallery in the Northern Ireland Assembly on December 2, 1999.

The leaders of Stormonts five main parties pictured during last weeks televised UTV leaders debate

The leaders of Stormonts five main parties pictured during last weeks televised UTV leaders debate

It was the day that Martin McGuinness was appointed minister of Education. I still remember the frisson that ran across the unionist benches.

I remember the media frenzy that continued for days afterwards.

I remember the reaction from people I met in shops, restaurants and petrol stations, even months later. Because that was the day when unionists – both pro and anti the Good Friday Agreement – realised that Sinn Fein was now at the heart of government in Northern Ireland. And it came as a huge shock to them.

It was exactly the same shock they felt – right across the Province, too – when Alex Maskey was appointed Sinn Fein’s first Lord Mayor of Belfast in the summer of 2002. Neither event made a button of actual difference to the likelihood of a united Ireland; yet both events had an enormous impact on the unionist psyche.

The front cover of the 12-page 2017 election pull-out that was free in Thursday's News Letter. The supplement of cartoon, analysis, full list of candidates and 18 constituency profiles was only available to paying readers of the print edition of the newspaper for more than 24 hours before being put online

The front cover of the 12-page 2017 election pull-out that was free in Thursday's News Letter. The supplement of cartoon, analysis, full list of candidates and 18 constituency profiles was only available to paying readers of the print edition of the newspaper for more than 24 hours before being put online

And that’s because both events confirmed an impression in unionist minds that they were on the wrong side of history; that republicanism was getting the upper hand on them and threatening their way of life.

The next psychological blow came on May 8, 2007, when Martin McGuinness was installed as deputy first minister. Not one single unionist welcomed that development. Even the DUP made it clear that McGuinness at their side was the price to be paid for devolution; but argued that devolution served the long term interests of unionism better than long periods of suspension or an even longer period of direct rule.

But the DUP was also well aware that they needed devolution to work and, particularly, needed it to work in the eyes of unionists.

Ten years on and increasing numbers of unionists – even in the DUP – are having serious doubts about the value of a system of devolution in which Sinn Fein seems to exercise a veto on a range of key issues. The other thing which spooks them – and Arlene Foster isn’t even trying to make a secret of it – is that Sinn Fein may be in with a chance (nothing is certain, of course) of sneaking past the DUP on March 2.

Even with a LucidTalk poll indicating the DUP/Sinn Fein neck and neck, the odds still favour the DUP when it comes to seats; but anything is possible on the day. Sinn Fein says that it would be quite happy to regard their unionist counterpart as ‘joint first minister’ in those circumstances; but the fact remains that a unionist not having the title of first minister in their own right would come as another psychological hammer blow.

There’s another issue worth looking at – the overall number of seats in the next Assembly. In 1969, the last ever election for the Stormont Parliament, unionists returned with 39 of the 52 seats. In the 1973 Assembly election they won 50 of the 78 seats. In the 1975 Convention they won 52 of the 78.

In the 1982 Assembly they returned with 49 of the 78. And in the 1996 Forum election they took 61 of the 110 seats.

All very comfortable majorities: the sort of majorities, indeed, which led to complacency in all of the unionist parties.

But look at what’s been happening since then. In the first election to the new Assembly, in June 1998, those designating themselves as ‘unionist’ won 58 of the 108 seats – an overall majority of 8 seats.

They comforted themselves with the fact that Alliance, who designated as ‘other,’ were still regarded as broadly pro-Union, albeit with a small u. That overall unionist majority went down to just 4 in the last election in 2016; but nowadays unionists don’t trust Alliance when it comes to the Union

On March 2 we’re voting for a 90 seat Assembly – which means that unionists need 46 seats if they are to have an overall majority of just one. Professor Jon Tonge (a specialist in British/Irish politics and author of a book on the DUP) has tweeted a guesstimate: 29 DUP/13 UUP/1 TUV. An election analyst I know well, but who doesn’t want to be named, has suggested 30 DUP/13 UUP/ 1 TUV/ 1 Independent (Claire Sugden).

Neither of their figures has the unionists with an overall majority.

All of which explains why Arlene Foster is correct to describe this as the most important election since 1998. I would go further: this has the potential to be the most important election in Northern Ireland’s history.

It is quite possible that Sinn Fein could win the most seats on March 2; and it is also quite possible that unionists, for the first time ever, would not represent a majority in a Northern Ireland Parliament or Assembly.

That’s why Mike Nesbitt’s suggestion that UUP voters should transfer as early as possible to SDLP candidates has caused such a hoo-ha in other unionist parties; and an equally big hoo-ha within his own party.

The margins are likely to be so tight in a 90 seat Assembly (they were very tight, too, with 108) that a couple of extra SDLP seats could mean the difference in terms of emerging with an overall unionist majority.

Not having an overall unionist majority—even if the presence of 10/12 Alliance/Greens/PBP still ensured a comfortable lead over SF/SDLP—would, I believe, have a huge psychological impact across unionism.

How could it not when, for the first time since 1921, they didn’t represent a majority in Northern Ireland’s primary seat of government?

Again, I would go further and suggest that such an outcome would increase demands among all elements within political/electoral unionism for a coming together.

If the leader of the largest unionist party in the Assembly cannot talk about a unionist majority in that Assembly, then that will bring accusations that unionism is weakening.

Sinn Fein – and who could blame them – would also exploit that new reality and add it to their ever-lengthening list of arguments in favour of a border poll, sooner rather than later.

For all that has happened over the past twenty years or so, unionism has always comforted itself with the reality that it remains the majority opinion in the Assembly. But what happens if it doesn’t have that majority on March 3? How would it respond? How would the DUP/UUP/TUV/PUP et al respond?

The other issue, of course, is that such an outcome weakens the hand of the DUP (and I’m pretty sure they’ll remain the lead party of unionism) when the new negotiations begin in early March; because Sinn Fein (perhaps the British and Irish governments, too) will say to them; “but unionism is no longer the majority voice in the Assembly”.

So, March 2 has the potential to be the most interesting, most important election ever in Northern Ireland.

My gut instinct is that unionism will, just about, squeeze a majority – but it can’t be taken for granted. If it does lose that majority, though, the political dynamics here will change and change dramatically.

More crucially, though and putting it bluntly: if unionists can no longer deliver an overall majority in a Northern Ireland Assembly (and we’re just four years away from NI’s centenary), then they have big, big problems, further down the line.