The most significant result of the NI Assembly Election 2017, argues Maurice Macartney, is that it marks the beginning of the end of the dominance of the ‘two communities’ model of Northern Ireland. From here on, we will have to take the ‘community of others’ into account.
The Northern Ireland Assembly election (AE17) has turned out to be a very significant event.
It was always going to be interesting, given that the number of seats in the Assembly had been reduced from 108 to 90. In a context of widespread anger over the botched RHI scheme and other scandals, the outcome was always going to be hard to call.
In the event, the DUP, whose campaign repeatedly (almost catechistically) warned of the danger of a “Gerry-Adams-Sinn-Féin-radical-agenda”, lost most, ending up with 28 seats. That’s fully ten down on last year’s total, more than the six they would have lost had the reduction in seats been distributed evenly. Moreover, they are now only one seat ahead of Sinn Féin, who enjoyed the biggest surge in first-preference votes, numerically speaking, of any of the parties. Doubtless the DUP communications team will spin this as a ‘we told you so’ story.
However they spin it, though, having won under 30 seats, the DUP have lost their ability to veto anything they don’t like (and there’s a lot they don’t like) by means of the ‘Petition of Concern’ mechanism. They will have to rely on others if they are to block legislation that way.
And speaking of ‘others’, in my view this may prove, in the long term, the most significant development of the lot: neither unionists nor nationalists command a majority of seats in the Assembly. In other words, we no longer have a ‘majority’ and a ‘minority’ community (oh, and a few oddballs grouped under the relatively insignificant heading ‘Other’).
Politically speaking, Northern Ireland can no longer be reduced to ‘the two communities’ (and how often that misleading phrase has been repeated like a catechism). You could say Northern Ireland is now made up of three minority communities (though we’ll come back to that).
Breaking down the first preference votes won’t give the unionists their psychologically significant majority status either. By my calculation (and you can find the data here), they took about 45 per cent of first preference votes among them, if you include a few thousand for independents. SF and the SDLP took about 40 per cent – 41 per cent if you include the Workers Party and again a few thousand for independents.
But look at the parties who are avowedly neither nationalist nor unionist: for the first time, their combined support shot past the 100,000 mark – between 13 and 14 per cent of the total, even without adding any independents.
The Alliance Party must be incredibly happy to see their first preference votes surge from 48,447 last year to 72,717 (actually proportionally, though not numerically, a bigger rise than SF’s). The Green Party can be happy that, though their total first preference votes went down a bit elsewhere, they rose significantly in their two key constituencies, resulting in both their MLAs being returned, and netting a province-wide total of over 18,500 first preference votes.
Even People Before Profit, though they lost one of their pair of MLAs, can comfort themselves that their first preference votes went up by a few hundred.
Of course all this is in the context of a bigger turnout as compared to 2016. Nonetheless, in the long term, a haul of votes of more than 108,000 for parties designating as ‘Other’ – that is, explicitly non-unionist, non-nationalist parties – is something of a milestone.
From here on, these three communities – unionists, nationalists, and the community of others – are going to have to figure out how to live as minorities together. In particular, unionists are going to have to recognise that, having lost majority status, if they are to succeed in their own aim of defending the union, they will have to pay heed to the aims of those for whom the question of the border is not the overriding priority. They will have to learn to make Northern Ireland the sort of place the community of others are happy to live in, and that nationalists do not feel alienated by. And of course something similar can be said for nationalists.
The community of others, having been marginalised for decades simply for trying to hold open a space beyond the ‘two communities’ conflict, at last has a little leverage.
The sort of elbows-out politics, the obstinate insistence that ‘majority community’ status confers the right to dominance, aside from being a basic misunderstanding of democracy from the outset, simply will not work where you are not in a clear majority. And as the community of others continues to grow it is bound to inject a new dynamic into our politics. Doubtless some will react with hostility to that new dynamic – so it will be important for the ‘others’ to be open and respectful, ready to listen to, and work with unionists (or indeed nationalists) to address real problems. But then, openness and respect for difference is what the community of others is all about, or ought to be. Diversity, otherness, is at the heart of such a community. Indeed, it is what all community as such is, or ought to be, about.
Truth to tell, there has always been a community of others in Northern Ireland, or indeed many such communities – LGBTQ, feminist, disabled, environmentalist, minority ethnic groups, other religious groups, and many more; people whose key priorities are not defined by national ‘allegiance’, but by a desire to live in a society of equals, where health care, education, decent, sustainable jobs are the main issues.
There never were two and only two communities, no matter what endless news reports, academic studies and official forms told us. There were and are many communities coming into existence, evolving, dissolving, merging, emerging.
Because a community is not a group of people who are all the same. Community is what happens when different people get together.
Maybe, just maybe, the results of this election will provide an opportunity for us to learn, for all our differences, to live as a whole collage of minorities together.
6 March 2017
(Updated 7 March 2017)