NI Assembly result was historic – just not era changing

This column first appeared on May 9th 2022 on Broadsheet and looks at the Northern Ireland assembly election results and how the two governments in Dublin and London have responded. 

AE22 results

For about forty years, from the early 1930s up to the early 1970s, many weighty academic tomes on Karl Marx and on Charles Darwin, attempted to analysis how and why Marx decided to ask the father of the Theory of Evolution if he would accept Marx dedicating one of the volumes of Das Kapital, to him – and why Darwin politely, but firmly, declined the request?

It was a conundrum which intrigued and perplexed many fine scholars from both the left and right. Each side offering complex and multi-layered interpretations about each man’s motivations.

Was Marx just seeking Darwin’s approval – it is certain that Marx admired Darwin’s work – or was he attempting to draw parallels between his and Darwin’s theories and perhaps win the great man over to his arguments? Was Darwin’s refusal driven by a deep wariness of Marx’s politics and the fear of being associated with them.

For decades noted academics debated and dissected the contents of a letter from Darwin, found in the Marx family papers, and dated 13th October 1880. Darwin opened by extending his thanks for the “kind letter & the Enclosure” and after some pleasantries firmly rejects the request stating: “I shd (sic) prefer the Part or Volume not to be dedicated to me” as … [it has] “always been my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.”

In all that discussion and analysis it seems that no one thought to find the original letter from Marx requesting Darwin’s approval for a dedication. The story of Marx and Darwin was so accepted, so instilled and embedded in the minds of the experts that no one thought to question it.

But, as Francis Wheen points out in his 1999 biography of Marx, not until the early 1970s did it occur to anyone to go in search of it. It took a young graduate student at the University of California Margaret Fay to wonder where the original letter from Marx was. And why was Darwin citing an aversion to writing about religion to refuse a dedication of a volume on economic theory?

Fay soon discovered that the whole story was untrue.

The Oct 13th letter from Darwin was not addressed to Karl Marx, it was meant for a Mr Edward Aveling. Aveling was seeking Darwin’s dedication for his slim guide to the theory of evolution, entitled: The Students’ Darwin.

The Marx connection only came about much later when Aveling became the paramour of Marx’s daughter, Eleanor. The letter ended up in Marx’s archive in the late 1890s as Aveling was assisting Eleanor compile her father’s papers and writings, and his letter from Darwin was included along with various articles Aveling had written about the two men.

It is surprisingly easy for attractive and intriguing tales to go from being simply unchallenged, to becoming accepted and incontrovertible matters of “fact”. It does not require bad faith or deliberate misdirection, just the desire to imagine that the things you wish were true, really were true.

I detect some early hints of this propensity in the early analysis of the results from last Thursday’s Northern Ireland Stormont election – and not all on one side.

Words and phrases such as seismic and era changing are being bandied about a little too easily. On the other hand, you have the petty attempts to dismiss the significance of the result, as both the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach attempted to do on Saturday. An attempt that Minister Coveney tried to turbo charge yesterday and today with his assertion that a border poll is “not even on the radar.” I suppose we should be grateful at least that our part time defence minister even knows what a radar is. Maybe he recently spotted one in an equipment catalogue?

These comments stand in contrast to the more constructive remarks of the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, and bear too much a resemblance to the barely quarter-witted intervention by UK justice Secretary Dominic Raab, who claimed yesterday that the results showed that “58% of people fully voted either for parties who support the union or for parties who do not support constitutional change.”

Anyone who has read anything I have written here before knows that I do not support Sinn Féin. I have never given a Sinn Féin candidate a preference on any ballot paper. If I were living in Northern Ireland I would have voted SDLP last Thursday. Indeed I have supported and helped the SDLP whenever and however I could for over thirty years… but I have no problem saying that (a) Sinn Féin’s emergence as the largest party in Northern Ireland is historic, and (b) that Michelle O’Neill should be the North’s next First Minister.

To say otherwise is begrudging and undemocratic. There is much that I dislike about Sinn Féin’s extrapolation of the result into something beyond its the genuine significance, but this takes nothing away from the reality that Sinn Féin won more seats and votes than any other party.

So the starting point of any fair and substantive political analysis of the results must be that politics in Northern Ireland have changed and that, to quote Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan on Twitter yesterday: “100 years ago Northern Ireland was designed to ensure it would always be under unionist control. That design has now disappeared.”

There are downsides to the results. Downsides that undermine the claim that this is seismic, but it is important to first highlight the very many upsides.

I have mentioned the main one, the mandate for a nationalist First Minister. The next is the emergence of Alliance as the third party of Northern Ireland politics. It pains me that some of this Alliance advance was on the back of SDLP losses, not least the loss of Nichola Mallon’s seat in North Belfast. But having the growing “other” community represented in such a cohesive and clear manner may help end the bi-polar, crisis-a-week politics we have seen from both the DUP and Sinn Féin.

It is a bi-polarity to which both governments have contributed by constantly seeking to broker cosy back-room deals with the two big parties to the exclusion of the other ones. Breaking this all we need to do is to get the DUP and Shinners on board and the job is done approach and having the three main parties in the room may make deals harder to reach, but they will hopefully stick when concluded.

The other big plus is the increased majorities in the new Assembly for both the Northern Ireland Protocol and the institutions themselves. There were majorities for both in the last Assembly, not that you’d know this to listen to anyone from the DUP. But thanks to the DUP insistence that this election be fought on its chosen territories of dumping the protocol and having only a unionist as first minister, those majorities increased.

Speaking of the DUP setting the parameters for the election – it was its virulently anti-nationalist rhetoric, not to mention its participation in shady loyalist organised anti-protocol rallies across the province, which helped to shore up Sinn Féin’s support, often at the expense of the SDLP.

Which brings me to the downsides. Let me again state that none of the downsides I am about to identify diminish Sinn Féin’s entitlement to nominate a First Minister. They simply remind us that victories come with costs you cannot disregard.

The first downside is one I have discussed before – here and here and concerns the better than (some) expected performance of the DUP. While Sir Jeffrey’s party is on a downwards trajectory, it won’t be as steep or dramatic as polls or pundits suggested. Though its first preference vote share dropped by almost 7%, much of it (40k+ votes) went straight to the TUV and came back as 2nd or 3rd preferences.

This enabled the DUP to cut its seat losses to just 3, returning 25 seats. In terms of the Assembly, this means that just 37 of the 90 MLAs are now officially designated as Unionist. A drop of three seats (all DUP) since 2017.

But here’s the problem. That is a drop of one less than on the other side. The number of MLAs designating as nationalists has dropped by 4, from 39 to 35. This is not dramatic, but neither should it be hailed as an achievement. The loss of the 4 SDLP seats is not a win for anyone, including Sinn Féin, despite its crowing and hailing the SDLP slump as a deserved punishment for daring to criticise Sinn Fein.  

None of us who advocate strongly and committedly for Irish unity should allow the symbolic importance of the results (to use a description from US Congressman Richie Neal) to ignore the reality that the nationalist vote is static and has been static for some years.

While Sinn Féin has an evident vested interest in trumpeting its own successes and primarily seeing unity as a means of driving up its own support, the wider movement for unity cannot ignore these factors. That wider movement has a responsibility to advocate for Unity with a structured and detailed vision of what a New Ireland would work (as the SNP did in 2013 with their 650-page Scotland’s Future plan for the independence for Scotland), not just mark the fifth anniversary of Gerry Adam’s calling for a referendum within five years with an… ahem… call for a referendum within five years.

That’s historic in the wrong way.

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