By Tom McGurk (for Daily Ireland)
Watching the general election in the North has been a deeply depressing experience. Of course, the continual failure to erect the devolved governmental structures is bleeding the process dry and as each year without agreement passes the public appetite decreases accordingly.
Like some unending groundhog-day the same faces and the same parties involved in the same small political circularity continue to appear, election after election.
It’s close to a political miracle that turnout figures have not alarmingly slumped but, as ever, come close to polling day the old jungle drums will break out and the voters will reluctantly turn out, even if it only adds up to the old partitionist numbers game.
The reality is that society gets on with life as though the politicians don’t exist.
The economy has improved, lifestyles and living standards are catching up with the South and fewer younger people have any interest in politics.
In many ways what drove the huge public involvement in the peace process in the beginning was that it offered an alternative to civil disorder and violence. The longer that memory recedes, the belief that we will never return to those days grows ever stronger.
In fact, the North may be reaching a point where the public no longer see a link between peace and the requirement for devolved government structures. Who can deny that, despite the absence of political agreement, peace has grown and deepened? Direct rule too continues to drain away the political urgency of the situation and it’s with a shock that one realises that, except for the short period of functioning devolution, that’s been the political reality now for the last 33 years.
At least, while both of the nationalist parties are seeking to actively enhance the peace process after the election, the performance of the two unionist parties is deeply depressing.
At times one wonders whether they have anything else to talk about other than Sinn Féin and the IRA.
Listening to their spokespeople or their political broadcasts one waits in vain for any discussion on policy or strategy. Do they have no policies on health, education, transport, environment, tourism or culture?
On almost all major public occasions their obsessive subject is Sinn Féin and the IRA and their relative merits on dealing with them.
The tragedy is that, while the rest of Northern society is getting on with living as the peace grows, they seem trapped in the war. They never accepted either the logic of the ceasefire or the arrival of the new politics - instead they have fought tooth and nail to reduce everything back to the old hostilities.
Utterly unable to accept the bona fides of their political opponents at any time, they continue to display political insecurity and inadequacy.
Since the 1960s, when Terence O’Neill first attempted to bring unionist politics into the then 20th century, the response has been an inevitable and unstoppable drift to the reactionary and sectarian right. Now at last, the process looks like completing that journey as this time out the DUP will reduce the UUP to minority unionist status.
Over two generations the broad body of unionism has finally surrendered to Paisley’s populist sectarian imaginings. Now he’s king of the castle and every day he can close one eye and play at being king.
Of course, the unchangeable political reality is that this unionist progression away from the centre is an utterly pointless journey because, sooner or later, they will all have to return to the same political point in time.
The fact is that whenever they come to do business they will still have to deal with the same opponents and under the same context of the Belfast Agreement.
If this generation of unionists ever wants to exercise political power they will have to do it as the partners of both Sinn Féin and the SDLP. Otherwise, they will just have to sit around broadcasting studios for the rest of their political lives bitching about the IRA and Sinn Féin. Those are their only choices.
This time out, both unionist parties are suggesting that there are alternatives to the 1998 Agreement. There is talk about voluntary coalitions (won’t happen) and attempts to do away with the d’Hondt system for electing cross party ministers (can’t happen). It is, of course, pretence that they can still exercise majoritarian political power in the North (they don’t) and when the time comes they will win that battle at whatever new talks emerge (they won’t).
All this approach will do is to further damage the image and the esteem of unionism as the DUP cannibalises the UUP.
The truth is, the DUP are too impotent to destroy the original Agreement structures and are instead taking their fury out on the UUP. And when the smoke of that unionist civil war has cleared what will that have achieved politically? Precisely, less than nothing.
I can imagine now that if they succeed in defeating David Trimble in his constituency we will have the DUP jumping up and down in delight and singing “O God our help in ages past”. What will that achieve? It will simply send out to the rest of the Irish and British body politic the unmistakable signal that the lunatics have finally taken over the asylum; that despite all that has been done to create new politics and a new future in the North unionism is really only fit to exorcise its own demons in complete disregard to their wider political responsibilities.
As the Belfast poet Derek Mahon once wrote: “God help you, standing on a corner, stiff with rhetoric, promising nothing under the sun”.