13 May 2022
The Assembly Election is over: now democracy must prevail
"The election on 5 May presented a choice between progressive and positive power sharing, or the prospect of deeper stagnation. The electorate’s decision was resounding and unambiguous. Now that the votes have been counted, we are all faced with another stark choice; to be blackmailed and dragged backwards; or, to stand up for democracy."
101 years ago, the six-county state in the north of Ireland was established. It was designed to maintain a permanent in-built pro-union majority. A system of institutionalised gerrymandering and sectarianism was used to consign those of an Irish identity, pro-nationalist tradition, or of a non-unionist background to second-class citizenship, through state-sponsored discrimination in the allocation of housing, employment and votes.
The injustices and repression of the unionist, one-party northern state were a direct consequence of British colonialism and Ireland’s partition.
The denial of basic civil, democratic and human rights in the north culminated in a sustained political conflict which lasted from 1969 up until 1997. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA), in 1998, then drew a line under the decades-long conflict and opened up a new era of democratic change and power sharing.
The GFA became the political architecture of the Irish peace process. It created a framework of principles, values and rules to manage future transformation and change within the north of Ireland.
One graphic illustration of this change is that, since 2017, the political unionist electoral majority in the north has been eclipsed by the popular support of Sinn Féin, and other progressive parties. And overall the political landscape has been dramatically changed, particularly as a result of Brexit, the impasse over the Protocol, and also the pandemic.
Politics in the north has remained in a continuous state of flux.
Months ago, Sinn Féin predicted that the scheduled Assembly Election on 5 May would be the most important of a generation; and, so it has proved to be.
Throughout this Assembly Election campaign, the local media regularly referred to it being very low key. That wasn’t my assessment or experience. From weeks out, I detected a momentum just below the surface.
Those with whom I spoke and canvassed were deeply engaged with the politics influencing this election. It was the most intense and protracted canvass campaign I have ever been involved in.
Unprecedented numbers of voters wanted to talk, and be heard. It regularly took me double the usual length of time, and then some, to canvass country lanes and roads, and both large and small housing estates.
No two elections are ever the same, but from an early stage, it struck me there was a similarity this time with the extent to which voters were engaged with the politics of the June 2017 General Election.
Of course, the context and politics had changed. But the huge number of conversations with constituents across South Antrim confirmed to me how ‘tuned in’ they were with all of the key issues; albeit imperceptibly so.
People wanted to speak about cost-of-living pressures; the state of our health and social care system; and, underinvestment in public services.
Everyone I met, including people from unionist backgrounds said the DUP were holding society and public services to ransom.
They were frustrated and annoyed that power sharing had been so badly undermined by the DUP’s actions.
The Protocol was dismissed out of hand as giving any legitimacy for the DUP’s behaviour.
Both first time and older voters were angry that the DUP and political unionists should be so arrogant as to suggest that a First Minister for all, could be blocked from taking office; because she might be a republican politician.
The old, sectarian mantra of ‘no nationalist need apply’, synonymous with the unionist northern state, overshadowed this Assembly Election.
At the same time, the election campaign was used as a proxy to intensify the most serious assault against the GFA by both the extremes of political unionism and right-wing elements of the British Tory party.
Yet even while all these negative issues played directly into the politics of the campaign, voters were energised by Sinn Féin’s positive and progressive message of making real change together.
250,000 voters chose progress over stagnation, and optimism over negativity by voting for Sinn Féin.
Other progressive parties were also rewarded with important mandates for change.
The 5 May election has indeed proved to be the most important of a generation. It was a watershed.
Brexit changed everything, and now the political and societal landscape has changed again.
An historic Rubicon has been crossed.
There can now be a First Minister for all – for the first time in 101 years.
And there is now the potential for proper power sharing to be established.
However, that positive democratic agenda is now being directly threatened with a refusal by the DUP to allow the power sharing and the north/south political institutions to be restored.
The most serious and profound political crisis of the post-GFA era is currently unfolding in plain sight.
It is even more outrageous that this should be happening at a time when families everywhere are suffering under the effects of an unprecedented cost of living crisis, and when the health and social care service in the north is consumed by systemic crisis.
The entire basis of power sharing is being imperilled by the tactics of both the DUP and the Tory government; and in particular, a toxic alliance between the Tory Foreign Secretary, the Economic Research Group (ERG) and the DUP.
International treaties and international law in the form of the Protocol and GFA are under direct attack.
The agenda is clear. A wrecker’s charter is being used to dismantle the GFA by stealth, alongside the use of a phoney war against the EU, ostensibly to dismantle the Protocol.
But the fact is that the Tories’ objective is all about shoring up its electoral coalition in England; while the DUP’s objective is to try to reassert itself as the dominant force within political unionism, and stem the hemorrhage of its political power and influence in the north.
The current Tory administration has no investment in, or attachment to the Irish peace process. The Tory fat cats in Whitehall don’t care about anyone in the north.
This current leadership of the DUP is unable and unwilling to adapt to the changed political landscape.
The Tories and the DUP are outliers in terms of respect for international treaties and all forms of democratic conventions, principles and values.
The Tories and DUP may very well be gambling that their actions will have little or no consequence. They may assume:
That the special relationship between Britain and the USA will trump every consideration, and that a refusal to approve a British and USA Free Trade Deal will have negligible and short-lived repercussions:
That an EU response to the disapplication, or over ruling of the Protocol now being proposed by London won’t be that big a deal:
And, that in the context of wider political challenges, wrecking the GFA and using a unionist veto over power sharing will be of no real concern at home or abroad.
Democratic opinion both in Ireland, Europe and North America must prove them wrong.
Prior to the 5 May election, the political process and society in the north was already being held to ransom.
Now in its aftermath, the Tories and the DUP are threatening to destroy all the progress made in the last 24 years to advance their own narrow, selfish power plays.
So urgent action is required.
They must not be allowed to deny and disrespect the democratic will of the majority of citizens, and the mandate of the majority of elected MLAs. Too much has been achieved for our political progress to be squandered.
The Tories and DUP must not be allowed to drag us all into their race to the bottom.
This is a defining moment.
The EU should continue to stand strong against the belligerence and bad faith of the Tories.
The joint framework of the Protocol provides the mechanisms to ensure its smooth implementation. That has already proved its effectiveness by delivering a resolution on the complex area of access to drugs and medicines.
The EU, and the US administration, must hold firm on the GFA, and the primacy of international treaties and international law.
There should be no renegotiation of either the Protocol or GFA.
Both are necessary and here to stay.
The approach being adopted by the British government is effectively an anti-GFA agenda wrapped up in pro-Agreement rhetoric. It is a complete fiction to suggest the GFA needs rebalanced. It does not: Instead the GFA must be fully implemented.
Wider international political and civic opinion needs mobilised in support of power sharing and all elements of the GFA.
It is time for the Irish government to step firmly up to the mark, and adopt an unequivocal position against the destructive behaviour of both the DUP and the Tories.
The united voice of wider civic society across the north must also be heard loudly.
The election on 5 May presented a choice between progressive and positive power sharing, or the prospect of deeper stagnation.
The electorate’s decision was resounding and unambiguous.
Now that the votes have been counted, we are all faced with another stark choice; to be blackmailed and dragged backwards; or, to stand up for democracy.
There can be only one option – democracy must prevail.