The Blog

The Stormont Reformation


The biggest flag-flapper gets the votes. You can't eat a flag, but you can win elections with them, that is the moral hazard of Northern Ireland politics. Even DUP politicians who are alert to the image and economic downsides to flag politics, know a big bit of cloth can bring people to the polls.

Because identity and belonging is like a priceless family heirloom - from the haute bourgeois to the most lumpen proletariat - people ballot the brawniest patriot. Many in 6-county Ulster might like to vote for the cross-community Alliance Party, but that would be like buying third party insurance from a side-street broker. They may be more transparent and have more progressive ideals, but their balance sheet is weak.

When your identity and citizenship is at stake you want a triple lock deal with a venerable lender of last resort (even if they have questionable ethics); a kind of uber-Hench lock-keeper of your "culture".

Banners trump manifestos, citizenship Donald Trumps change. As Newton Emerson wrote in the Sunday Times:

"The clearest signal sent by this election is that people in Northern Ireland do a lot of moaning but all they really care about is whose flag is tied to the biggest donkey...

The people who suffer most from the deadlocks of DUP and Sinn Fein rule are the working classes who elect them, overwhelmingly complain about them, then re-elect them. The evidence from this election is that they want to carry on doing that."

Even when the hardline unionist Bill Craig floated the idea of voluntary coalition in the 1970s, thus flapping vigorously a big orange flag and waving miserly a tiny little green flag, he was rejected utterly by the Orange electorate.

Don't underestimate tribalism in Northern Ireland, it's classless and touches all post-codes. David Trimble said he was astounded by middle-class protestant sectarianism:

"[It] was quite sobering to see was how deep the feelings of sectarianism are amongst some of the middle class. Some of them give a very different impression, but when push comes to shove there are some very embittered people there."

Mick Fealty said on Radio Ulster that just as Ian Paisley was the greatest recruiting sergeant for the IRA, so Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are the strong recruiting agents for the DUP.

In the emotive world of Northern Ireland identity politics, flags are a handy tool. Not only can they help propel you into office, once in office they can help politicians veil scandal, inefficiency and misconduct.

The Election of May 2016, the Arlene Show, has shown once and for all that the extreme parties Sinn Fein and DUP cannot be outdone on flags and identity politics.

The bullish UUP made no gains. The SDLP continues to slide towards irrelevancy, coming within 89 votes of failing the d'Hondt threshold.

They say, if you can't beat 'em, join them. But, since all the parties are joined in the executive, in this case, if you can't beat 'em, leave them and perhaps change the rules of the game.

Every election to date has been a border poll; a tribal beauty contest.

An opposition has the potential to diversify the nature of any future electoral contest. Nesbitt's political event could fizzle out as a damp squib, or it could help shift Northern Ireland off the ancient tribal axis.

A formal opposition has the potential to help normalise politics, which in turn could help to normalise the Northern Ireland society and economy, which both remain rather dysfunctional.

Opposition keeps government more honest and competitive. It offers an alternative.

When you have an all-party power sharing executive you can promise everything and deliver nothing and face no consequences, because there is no political alternative for the electorate to actually ballot.

Nesbitt's New Departure, deciding to go into opposition has been warmly welcomed by all but the incumbent SF-DUP alliance. Thus suggesting that it is they who have most to fear and possibly lose from the new dispensation.

Northern Ireland is pregnant with anticipation. The election gave Sinn Fein and DUP a fresh mandate for more of exactly the same, but Northern Ireland has perhaps never been riper for real change.

If SDLP and UUP can use the next term to rigorously scrutinise the incumbents, and articulate a clear costed alternative, we could see a true revolution of Northern Ireland politics.

The Roman church had become flabby, cynical and corrupt. A golden elite dispensed jobs, sinecures and privileges to the few, while the flock were kept down, dumb and dependent.

And so it came with Stormont. The electoral flock were kept low, duped and under-served by a narrow caste of hereditary political priests who waved flags instead of manifestos. The orthodoxy was tribal identity. Being a normal politician was heresy. People were sold flags, not jobs and a better education, for votes. Cynicism overruled conviction. Tribal doctrine vetoed change. Cronyism and patronage abounded.

When Martin Luther posted his the Ninety-give Theses on the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg in 1517 he unleashed a Big Bang which rings out to this day. The Reformation broke the monopoly of the priests and empowered the individual - giving rise to individual liberty, autonomy and the buccaneering tradesman and inventor.

When on May 12 2016 Mike Nesbitt hammered his Two-theses on opposition onto the door of Stormont's Executive Office, wherein reside Sinn Fein and DUP, he undoubtedly created a Big Bang.

The question now is whether we will get our Stormont Reformation. The test is whether we see the continued hegemony of Sinn Fein and the DUP, or the withering of their tribal ascendency.

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