Alex Kane: Book on NI’s political and institutional crisis is essential reading

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Writing in the News Letter’s election supplement on February 24, 2017 (a week before the Assembly election), I noted: ‘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.’

My gut instinct was wrong: unionism did lose its overall majority and emerged from the election with just 40 of the 90 seats.

Sydney’s Elliott’s book is the story of that election; beginning on May 5, 2016 (the previous Assembly election, when DUP had one of its best results ever and the SDLP/SF lost seats) and running through until April 2019.

It’s a story that embraces the RHI saga; the unexpected Assembly and general elections in 2017; the death of Martin McGuinness; 30 months of failure to reboot the Executive; the ‘retirement’ of Gerry Adams; the DUP’s role as Westminster ‘kingmakers’; the backstop; Leo Varadkar; ‘crocodile’ comments; two of the worst NIO secretaries of state ever; deteriorating relationships between unionism and republicanism; the ongoing collapse of the SDLP and UUP; the Alliance ‘surge’; the loss of the second unionist MEP; the ongoing fallout from the Brexit referendum; and so much more.

In the era of rolling news and information platforms which never sleep (and tend to run with material before it is verified and properly sourced), the importance of detail and precise chronology is often overlooked. Events move so fast nowadays that people, even those who regard themselves as political nerds, don’t always take the time to stand still and reflect. I’m a great believer in the wisdom of Sherlock Holmes’s maxim, “There is nothing so instructive as the observation of trifles.”

That is one of the great strengths of this book because, as you work your way through the chronology, you will find yourself remembering things you had forgotten.

And in remembering some things - which you let slip because they seemed like trifles at the time - you realise the impact they had upon later events. Arlene Foster’s ‘feed the crocodile’ comment a month before the 2017 Assembly election was dismissed by her advisers as just the everyday throwaway rough-and-tumble part of election campaigns, yet a week later a Sinn Fein MLA described it to me as the “most important own goal by a unionist leader in 20 years”.

At the heart of the book is the analysis of the Assembly election itself. It is detailed, fascinating, thorough and essential reading for every party strategist, campaign wonk, journalist, commentator and student of politics.

And for those who enjoy election coverage and following the counts (which listening/viewing figures for the programmes would suggest are actually quite high) this book offers great insight into party voting, seat change, transfer analysis and turnout.

After years of observing PR elections I still find myself coming unstuck when the transfer process becomes more complicated as the count continues towards the election of the final seats; and the book is particularly helpful at explaining the significance and influence of intermediate transfers, terminal transfers and multi-party transfers, with tables demonstrating how each works and how parties both benefit and lose out.

I think we will look back on the 2016-2020 (and no, I’m not expecting any breakthroughs before the end of this year) period as the most important since the 1996-1998 negotiations (resulting in the GFA); and the 2005-2007 negotiations (which ended with the DUP/Sinn Fein deal). I think, too, the 2017 Assembly election will be remembered as the one which changed everything as far as unionist/nationalist dynamics were concerned. We are now less than two years away from Northern Ireland’s centenary and the ‘big, big problems’ facing unionism I wrote about in February 2017 have not reduced in either number or size.

That’s why I think Elliott’s book is important, as important as the various editions of Northern Ireland: A Political Directory (begun by W.D. Flackes in 1980 and continued by him). It is modestly priced at £7.99 and easy to read (a skill which a lot of academics have failed to master).

He is right to describe it as an ‘extraordinary election’ and, as someone whose job is to explain what is happening in Northern Ireland, I’m glad he didn’t allow his formal retirement from QUB’s politics department to become an excuse for putting his feet up and allowing the ‘trifles’ to go unnoticed.