At a superficial level, the main takeaways from the assembly elections are:
that a nationalist is now in-line to be the First Minister in a polity created to ensure a permanent unionist government;
the SDLP received a terrible drubbing and that party is now on life support;
the main winner is the ‘centre ground’ as manifested by the success of the Alliance Party which more than doubled its representation in the legislative chamber.
At a deeper level, largely (conveniently?) missed by mainstream media, is the impressive performance of Aontú in their first assembly elections. The pro-life party is a relative newcomer and can be pleased with polling more than 16,000 votes, even though it only stood candidates in 12 of the region’s 18 assembly constituencies. A strong showing in places like West Belfast, Foyle and East Derry means that the party is well-placed to pick up some council seats. When one looks at the result in the context of a surge of nationalist support to Sinn Féin to secure the post of First Minister, it is even more impressive.
A good day out for Aontú – party leader Peadar Tóibín and the candidates and party workers should all be very proud.
The focus on the Alliance Party has been relentlessly positive – and it has been an impressive performance. The party has styled itself as centre-ground and moderate, and this has been lapped up as signalling some sort of ‘new Northern Ireland’ where the politics of green and orange don’t matter and everyone will one day flock from extremes to a comfortable middle ground. But just how moderate is the Alliance Party and what might be in store?
Well, for starters – the Alliance Party is far from moderate when it comes to the rights of parents to choose a Catholic education for their children. During his time as Higher Education Minister the party’s deputy leader Stephen Farry embarked on what could only be described as a crusade to close St Mary’s University College in West Belfast which has educated generations of teachers for the Catholic sector. He threatened to remove vital funding from the college which would in all likelihood have forced it to close. He was only thwarted in his ambition after the Executive collectively blocked the proposal.
The Alliance Party, as one might expect, are also enthusiastic supporters of integrated education. No harm in that, of course – parents who want to choose that form of education for their children should be facilitated to so do. But, Alliance have consistently stated their opposition to parental choice in education – integrated schools, they believe, should be prioritised. In fact, not long before the elections they championed a piece of legislation in the Assembly that now commits the Department for Education to spend more money on integrated schools than on either Catholic or so-called maintained (effectively state-controlled Protestant) schools. Catholic schools don’t ask for special treatment, but nor do they expect to be excluded so that other forms of education are given special treatment.
No-one, not even in the Alliance Party, believes that Catholic schools are the root cause of division in the North. But, Catholic schools have become an easy target – particularly because they have guarded their independence and often questioned the status quo on education.
On issues like abortion, Alliance in fairness views the issue as one of personal conscience. That being said, many of their representatives are amongst the most radical on that issue and others to do with gender.
We may be in for a bumpy ride – so be wary of the term moderate for a party that is, at least on some things, quite extreme.
Book signing in Veritas Dublin
I’ll be signing copies of my new book An Irish Pilgrimage Guide to the Holy Land in the Veritas shop at 7-8 Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 1 this coming Saturday (May 14) from 12noon. If you’re around, please do drop in for a chat. We also have two of our pilgrimages to the Holy Land in October. You can email me on email@example.com if you’d like more information…Michael
An Irish Pilgrimage Guide to the Holy Land is available for purchase online at Columba Books.