ON May 5, the unionist voters of Northern Ireland will flock to the polls to try to ensure that Sinn Fein is not returned to Stormont as the largest party, and thus scupper the chances of Martin McGuinness being installed as First Minister in the next assembly. That at least is what the UUP and the DUP are hoping for – and doubtless will do everything in their power to bring about – and what many political pundits are predicting will happen. But how realistic a prospect is a massive anti-McGuinness turnout? Not very realistic, is the answer.
There was a time when even a hint of McGuinness being elected First Minister would have had people rioting in the streets, but not anymore. Those days are gone, and for a combination of reasons, starting with the Belfast Agreement.
It is true that the agreement was barely endorsed by unionists. However, when it proved not to be the cunning trap they feared (finally evidenced by the DUP climbing on-board), and they became accustomed to Sinn Fein holding ministerial office, unionists realised that, insofar as it was possible for either community to win, self-evidently they had. After more than 30-years of violence and political upheaval, the agreement finally determined that the fate of the union could only be decided by the people of Northern Ireland (in real terms, an improvement on the previous constitutional arrangements).
It did not necessarily follow, however, that belated recognition of the benefits of the agreement meant unionist estimations of the assembly would, as a matter of course, also rise. They didn’t. Unionists are not opposed to the assembly per se; they just don’t take it very seriously. They consider it to be little more than a side-show to the main act at Westminster. This was never more perceptible than during the extended periods when Stormont was suspended. Unionist electors, as opposed to their political representatives (who had salaries to consider, after all), remained totally relaxed about the situation. As long as the violence was ended, and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland could only be altered by referendum, they were content with direct rule from Westminster.
In fact, given the choice – and the aforementioned provisos, of course – many unionists would prefer direct rule over devolution. And who could blame them? Devolution may be inherently more democratic, but only the egalitarian-to-the-point-of-blindness brigade would argue that, purely on matters of governance, it has proved itself superior. Whatever about grandiose theory, the mess that has been made of, in particular, health and education, bears testament to the awkward reality.
None of the above means that unionist people do not appreciate the vital role that the assembly has played in bringing and holding the opposing factions together. They certainly do. It’s just that they believe reconciliation to be the only real purpose the assembly does serve: a Toy Town parliament, designed mainly for the optics, and to allay most of the mischief makers.
To deliberately labour the point in order to make another, at one level unionism bristles at what they see as the barefaced rewriting and highly selective representation of recent history that has them shouldering most of the blame for the Troubles. But at another level, they view this as not an unreasonable price to pay for the ending of violence and the securing of the union. Leave aside the bristling part, and the unionist attitude to Stormont is similar: it is something to be put up with for the greater good.
There is no row quite as bitter as a family one. And when the internal battle within unionism was at its height, people could get excited about an assembly election. But the family row is over. The Ulster Unionists have imploded to an embarrassing degree and the DUP has become the centrist party (well, almost) that the UUP once aspired to be. Essentially then, with no real competition between the UUP and the DUP for top dog status, within a legislature that the unionist electorate doesn’t really care much about anyway, that leaves only “the McGuinness factor” as an enticement to the polls on May 5.
As something of an aside, it is hard to imagine how the DUP will manage to demonise someone with whom the party, and particularly its leader, has shared ministerial office, overseas trips, joint statements and smiling photo-calls for a number of years, without being thought a tad hypocritical.
But that is irrelevant, for there is no McGuinness factor, at least not of the kind the unionist parties are hoping for and the pundits are anticipating. The truth is unionists no longer see Martin McGuinness as an ogre. If Gerry Adams had been in line for the First Minister position, or even Catriona Ruane, unionist attitudes might have been different, but McGuinness is no longer viewed in the same light as those two.
Against all the odds – at least the odds being laid by those who don’t know him personally – Martin McGuinness’s stock has risen steadily amongst unionists since he took office as Deputy First Minister. Somewhat paradoxically, given the personal histories of the two men, and in contradiction to the popular stereotypes of the two communities, he has managed this to a far greater degree than Peter Robinson has in respect of the nationalist and republican population. Which is a pity, Robinson is deserving of more appreciation than he gets.
That McGuinness can boast a discernible personality and a sense of humour, has no whiff of a sectarian attitude about him and is not obviously an ideologue, has no doubt helped unionists warm to him. Above all else though, it was the stand he took, and the personal courage he displayed in March 2009 following the fatal shootings by republican dissidents of two soldiers a police officer that impressed unionism.
There have been many powerful images in Northern Ireland over the years, but few have been more striking than that of Robinson and McGuinness standing together, with the then Chief Constable Hugh Orde, against those threatening to overturn the will of the people by violent means. Whatever doubts there might have been about McGuinness largely evaporated that day.
All things considered then, unionists will see nothing to get particularly excited about on May 5. Not only will most “garden centre Prods” give the election a miss, so too will many “bar and bookies Prods”. There is not enough at stake for them to care. There being now only one credible unionist outfit in town may well prevent Sinn Fein becoming the largest party, but the so-called McGuinness factor won’t.
As a member of the Ulster Democratic Party, David Adams was involved in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement and is a regular contributor to “The Irish Times” newspaper.