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Does the Northern Irish election matter?

Let’s be clear about what the question I ask in the headline means: Obviously all elections matter, in the sense that getting to choose our own rulers is still a privilege that very few of the human beings who have ever lived have been granted. And obviously, the assembly elections matter in terms of deciding who has the right to claim the first ministership, and all the rest. And obviously, they matter a very great deal to political partisans: If, as expected, Sinn Fein emerges the largest party, then expect a lot of shouting about the result being a mandate for a border poll, or whatever.

None of these are the question. The question is whether the election will resolve any of the open political questions in Northern Ireland. And the answer there, as usual, is “no”.

The Northern Irish political system is unique in the western world in that it mandates power sharing. For historical reasons, this has probably been a net plus for a long time, providing both communities with the assurance that a Government led by the other cannot impose its sectarian will on the minority. But it is also a system that effectively guarantees deadlock on the issues that really seem to matter to people.

The issue of the Northern Irish protocol, for example, will not be resolved by this election, regardless of the outcome. Nor will the question of whether to hold a border poll. Nor will the question about an Irish language act. Pick an issue that matters to either community, and where there is some dissent, and you’ll find in Northern Ireland that voting isn’t really likely to make a difference on it.

There might be no more sacred cow in the green fields of Ireland than the Good Friday Agreement. To speak ill of it is a form of heresy, particularly in the Republic, but also in large parts of Northern Ireland. And, to be clear, it was and remains a remarkable achievement.

But it was also an achievement that had a purpose: To move Northern Ireland from a situation where violence prevailed, to a situation where peace is the norm. It achieved that. But, peace now existing, there seems to be a paralysing fear of moving on.

In a truly peaceful Northern Ireland, the objective would be normal politics, like that which exists in almost every other western polity. A Government, and an Opposition, with the power to make decisions, and the power in the hands of the voters to change the decision makers if they do not like the decisions.

Northern Irish voters do not have that power. They cannot throw out the Government. The most they can do is re-weight the Government. It also means, functionally, that a small minority of Northern Irish voters have a veto on whether there even will be a Government, at all. Either the DUP or Sinn Fein, under the present rules, can pull the Government down. Neither of them have even a third of the electorate behind them.

The consequence is that Northern Ireland’s politics have not, really, advanced much at all over the past 25 years. A minority of Unionists retain a veto over things that a majority may want – like an Irish language act, or closer relations with the EU. Similarly, even a thumping win at the polls for Unionism could not deliver the things Unionists want – like alterations to the NI protocol.

The question then, as Northern Ireland votes today, is this: Does the election really matter?

In my view, it does not. Yes, we may see changes, like a Sinn Fein victory. But that victory will mainly be a function of the DUP vote splintering, rather than any massive surge in support for Sinn Fein’s agenda. We’ll also see a surge, most likely, for the Traditional Unionist Voice, who regard the DUP as soft-on-nationalism wusses, and for Alliance, who are increasingly a home for liberal middle class Unionists.

The idea that these parties can all come together and agree a way forward on the issues dividing NI is ridiculous. It is also an unfair burden to place upon them. No other polity in the world works this way.

The only thing standing between Northern Ireland and normal politics, of course, is the threat of a return to violence. Do we really think that is likely? Do we think Northern Irish voters want it? Do we think them so untrustworthy that they cannot cope with a Government they disagree with?

The constitutional position of Northern Ireland can only change by referendum. That means that Unionists need not fear a Nationalist Government taking them out of the UK without consulting them. Equally, the idea that Unionism will go back to the old Stormont days of repressing Catholics, should they win power, is hard to credit.

There’s no reason for power sharing to continue, other than that we don’t trust the people of Northern Ireland to govern themselves like a normal political entity. It’s about time we talked seriously about getting rid of it. We won’t, of course. But we should.

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