Will fresh attempts at resurrecting a DUP-Sinn Féin Executive bear fruit? Stalemate seems to suit both parties. Whilst Stormont lies dormant the DUP hold sway at Westminster; with intrigue, Sinn Féin watch Brexit unfold from afar.
Whilst the ‘big two’ play for the moral high ground, extending flimsy olive branches for the benefit of those who still care to follow the drama, public services and private businesses are caught in the political crossfire, held to ransom by uncertainty.
These parties positioned themselves as alternatives only a decade ago, after eclipsing the UUP and SDLP. Yet they’ve spent near as much time out of office as they have governing.
Whereas elites elsewhere have been brushed aside since 2007 for their response, or lack of, to political and economic events, no scandal or revelation of incompetence even on the scale of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) debacle has inspired a concerted challenge to the established order.
A zero-sum nationalist-unionist Catholic-Protestant game of divide and conquer has been allowed to continue by a squeezed political middle. Unconsciously, they blame the choices of the electorate rather than their own lack of imagination for their flat-lining or decline at the polls.
After March and May’s snap elections to Stormont and Westminster cemented the dominance of the DUP and Sinn Féin, the SDLP, UUP and Alliance must accept that Northern Ireland is too small – in terms of geographical and ideological space – for five parties, nevermind three of the middle to flourish.
Beyond the constitutional question, these parties are divided more by leadership personalities and membership cliques than policy. They tell us they want a shared future, adherence to the Good Friday Agreement. What stands in their way isn’t just the two parties of government but their reluctance to decommission the battle between brands, failure to frame a shared, non-sectarian outsiders’ platform and narrative against the insiders.
Unless the squeezed middle gets serious about winning, until these parties get over their own historical animosities and accept just one platform can thrive, it’ll find itself even less relevant come the next sorry Stormont standoff. Short-term electoral pacts won’t inspire anyone; the politically disheartened need one party, one umbrella to best represent them and a shared Northern Ireland’s interests. The middle ground isn’t dead, but sacrifices must be made.
Also published on Medium.