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The Orange and Green State for a Protestant and Catholic People

12/05/2016 11:22 | Updated 12 May 2016

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a disaffected people in possession of a dysfunctional government must be in want of an alternative. A lame government is a dead government. Not in Northern Ireland.

Naomi Long said ahead of the election, "The public will not forget the time squandered in delay, deadlock and division."

But on April 5 2016 the public emphatically did forget. Voting for the delayers, deadlockers and dividers of the DUP-Sinn Fein-led executive - the sauciest tribal beauty contestants. The Alliance Party, of whom Naomi Long is a vocal member, gained no seats and dropped 0.7% of its vote from 2011; the same percentage point drop as the largest party, the DUP.

There was no penalty for the big parties, no dividend for the smaller (lesser-implicated) parties.

The peculiarities of Northern Ireland politics mean that its politicians are not held to the normal standards of democratic accountability. In Northern Ireland there is a permanent suspension of the normal laws of the political order.

The DUP - most heavily associated with flag/street politics, blocking social reform, fielding reactionary politicians, and siding with unfashionable causes - performed the best of the establishment parties, retaining its 38 Assembly seats.

Sinn Fein - who alienated working class protestants and flipped-flopped disastrously on welfare reform - lost only one seat and dropped only 2.9% of its vote share (but of course received a bloody nose in West Belfast).

And it definitely was five years of bad government, headed by Sinn Fein-DUP. As the Detail.tv explained, Stormont's last Programme for Government was stuffed with empty rhetoric. Nearly half its pledges were not met, and question-marks stand over many of its 'achievements'.

Yet Sinn Fein-DUP are rewarded with a strong mandate of approval.

This election underlines a few things.

Firstly, the social media gap. It tells us that social media sanctimony is irrelevant to voter sentiment and behaviour.

As Newton Emerson said, going by the Twitter community ahead of polling, Stormont was about to welcome a Green-Alliance-led executive.

Social media castigates the DUP, but the people mandate the party.

Lesson: like the condescension of posterity, we live with the hubris of social media. As Sadiq Khan said to Labour activist, Northern Ireland social media need to talk to and convince others, not argue amongst themselves. As W.D. Allen wrote in 1925, 'You overeducated, you supercilious, you townbred froth of things.'

Secondly, the hegemony of tribal Orange-Green gap. Outwardly, Northern Ireland is quite normal. For ordinary crime, its numbers are strong. Walk through Belfast city centre and you will see bars and pavements awash with cultured, cosmopolitan people. But, as Stephen McCaffery reminded us, Northern Ireland is still deeply divided between the two tribal camps.

The legacy of the Reformation and the Elizabethan plantation endures, the religious question still reigns over us. The smart-Alec will be outraged at the suggestion of religion being a live issue.

But, for as long as 95% of schools fall along religious lines, I will not hear that the Ulster Question is nothing to do with religion.

I am not talking about a Catholic-Protestant argument over the presence of Christ during the Eucharist. The argument is between a Protestant and Catholic worldview, as taught by their respective schools. The former sees in Britain gallantry, the latter sees unrestrained brutality. The religious terms are a shorthand for two communities with deep ancestral ties and loyalties.

People talk about getting rid of Northern Ireland's "dinosaur" politicians. But these reptilian* representatives have a strong mandate from the voting people. Therefore, if there's anything we need rid of it's the electorate.

The every day man and woman in Northern Ireland may posture as modern and post-religious, but they vote for the politicians of the past.

Terence O'Neill articulated this curate's egg in the House of Lords in 1977:

"How do opinion polls work in Northern Ireland? Usually, in my experience, the very opposite to the way they work in England. About two months before I was forced out of Office, in early 1969, an opinion poll was held by the Belfast Telegraph which showed that an overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland of both religions wanted me to stay on and carry out my policies. Within two months I was out, and another two months later the whole of Northern Ireland went up in smoke. The British Army became involved and have been involved ever since. That is only one of my experiences of opinion polls. What the Northern Ireland people do when they are polled is that they give what they think is a respectable answer, the kind of answer which would be appreciated by middle class moderates. It is not the true answer. What they really feel, they keep to themselves and use at election time. This is one of the tragedies of the situation."

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To conclude. Republicans routinely denigrate the Northern Ireland of 1921-1998 as the "Orange State", a British province in Ireland that allowed only one world view. Today we live in a "Orange and Green" state with two acceptable, but incompatible world views.

This has been endorsed by the electorate. So where do we go from here? Perhaps from a platform of peace and stability (with violence and the extreme passions contained) we can begin to bring the Orange and Green together.

President Arlene has been crowned, the presumptive Commander-in-Chief is now that.

Martin McGuinness comes away diminished, but he is part of something bigger - the island-wide insurgent Sinn Fein project.

The insurgent left has made gains at Sinn Fein's expense in the form of the old street fighter Eamonn McCann and Gerry Carroll, and they will stand as ruthless opponents to the incoming Stormont administration.

The people clearly voted for partisan politicians who do partnership politics, albeit begrudgingly and badly. This is part of the contradiction of Northern Ireland politics; part British, part Irish.

In the years after the 1998 peace agreement when the UUP and SDLP held the plurality of the tribal vote, Stormont never held. Under these perceived "moderate" parties it was a time of stalemate and suspension and collapse.

The term of 2011-2016 under the "extreme" parties DUP-Sinn Fein was poor in general terms, but strong compared to the UUP-SDLP precedent.

The people of Northern Ireland, like elsewhere in the world, want stability and predictability. These are the preconditions of a functioning economy.

The notoriously bearish Alex Kane sounded bullish on the wake of the 2016 count. "There is something happening in the undergrowth", he said.

With the Fresh Start Agreement we got a stale election and the prospect of stable partnership government.

Christopher Hitchens, who worked in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, decried the "barbaric, sectarian party leaders".

If we have seen anything in the last few years and in the recent election, the grip of the barbaric old guard remains, but their dead hand is weakening.

As Alex Kane said, change is afoot. The smell of cordite is fading, as is its memory, as politicians retire and young people enter the ranks.

Watch the young DUP politician Chistopher Stalford debate with Claire Hannah and Nichola Mallon of the SDLP. The rhetoric is firm, but the tone is composed, it is nowhere near the venomous clashes of a generation ago.

The change of Northern Ireland is ponderous and imperceptible. But when you're living in a world of two immovable forces, begrudging partnership politics can be revolutionary.

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