Will cynicism cut into core support turnout?

Posted By: February 07, 2017

Fionnuala O’Connor. Irish News. Belfast. Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Calculating how events and a build-up of cynicism will affect voting in another four weeks is not easy. The cheeriest perspective is that once upon a time the vote here was totally predictable. Now, look where we are. Spring is in the air, and several shifts – or near-readiness to shift – may be up ahead.

For a start Mike Nesbitt, Ulster Unionist leader, claims power-sharing with nationalists is what Carson would have wanted, and unionism should see it as ‘beneficial not a necessary evil.’ Imagine what that did to Sammy Wilson’s temper, and might do to the UU core vote. Whatever the UU/SDLP flirtation amounts to, in the end, it probably needed a bit longer to shake down and resolve itself before facing the ballot-box. UUs and the SDLP may have confused some of their faithful in the past year, and alarmed if the rumour is right, some UU officers.

At least Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood are not taking voters for granted. The leading parties, by contrast, have tried their people sorely. DUP and Sinn Féin supporters have been treated with little respect. There, however, the similarity ends. These are not similar people.

The DUP core vote, if unsettled by the gathering scent of shamelessness, may still be easy enough to manipulate. Back Foster against Michelle O’Neill hasn’t the same ring to it as “Stop Martin McGuinness being First Minister.” And when the entire northern media are competing to investigate Stormont cover-ups and excesses, it is no longer as easy to blame political partisanship for uncovering wrongdoing by Unionists, or indeed by Republicans. Disenchanted DUPpers are unlikely recruits to an SDLP-friendly UUP.

Can the DUP’s core voters be satisfied simply to deny equal respect to ‘the others’? Maybe Jim Allister’s moment has come at last.

(Then again, maybe this time some of those Unionist “its all so sterile” non-voters will stir themselves and support Naomi Long’s Alliance, give People Before Profit a whirl, or the Greens, or one of the other smaller parties that defy the odds to provide alternatives.)

New DUP and SF tactics may be called for. That McGuinness resignation, so dramatically effective, wasn’t in any playbook. It was Republican supporters who called time on the pretense of sharing power with an overbearing, crudely sectarian DUP. The abrupt SF turnaround came by all accounts because grassroots anger boiled up and over in the heat of the Renewable Heating Incentive scandal. Sticking it out at Stormont for the sake of all-Ireland strategy, for credit in Dublin, couldn’t match, never mind outweigh a great, gathering roar of disbelief and disgust.

A big section of republicanism learned early in what became the ‘peace process’ to bite back shock and voice only trust in their leaders. Ten years down the line when the third DUP leader and crew tested it to destruction there turned out to be a limit to that popular discipline.

Some must have been surprised, perhaps even drily pleased, when southern opinion-formers weighed in to denounce the DUP and round on Arlene Foster.

For years past ‘republicans bad, unionists good’ has been analysis enough for Dublin. In trying to understand why McGuinness kept his team in the same, unfruitful place for so long, the best guess had been that Republicans were desperate to show the Republic how responsible they are, how disciplined, that they could work with a party as dissimilar, and uncooperative as the DUP.

Now for a change, the Foster personality came in for unfriendly Dublin scrutiny. This was the greatest empathy northern nationalism of any stripe could recall in decades. Ideally, there would have been a sight more dismay, maybe even remorse about ignoring DUP behavior; the works and pomps of Gregory Campbell and more recently Paul Givan, the limitations of Speaker Robin Newton. When it comes to The North, the southern political/media world has a short attention span. But Sinn Féin is not about to come under pressure from Dublin to rush back into a Stormont executive, and their people are in no hurry to see one restored.

So why did O’Neill say Foster can only be the first minister again if cleared on the RHI? Sinn Féin has looked flustered by the pace of events; welcome Donald Trump here, or not? Patching Stormont together without a proper, thorough re-negotiation would be cynicism tipping over into stupidity.

Rather than stay at home, their core vote will probably come out once more. But they saw the leaders flounder. They have been taken for granted long enough.