A pier is a disappointed bridge, James Joyce once wrote. We’ve seen a lot of disappointed bridges in the past 10 years since the Good Friday Agreement was hailed as having signed, sealed and delivered a future for the North.
Driving on the literary rut for another couple of seconds, we come to Cré na Cille, the majestic novel written by the great Connemara writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain. All of its main characters are dead and are buried in the local graveyard beside the sea. All have carried the petty jealousies, snobberies, prejudices, gossip and tittle-tattle of their lives to the grave, where the sniping continues ad infinitum.
Yesterday we crossed that kind of divide or Rubicon.
And as the results trickled in, we got the accompanying flood of negativity and bickering. Paisley’s bellicose remarks about republicanism, democracy and evil set the tone. Soon doubts were being expressed about the March 26 deadline. The media honed in on other problems. How could Sinn Fein say it was committed to policing and then parlay its way out of its own MP Michelle Gildernew’s comments? (She said she would refuse to contact the PSNI about suspicious dissident republican activity.)
Beyond that, there was the more universal brand of pessimism. The DUP and Sinn Fein had almost wholly emasculated the more moderate SDLP and the Ulster Unionists. Extremism had won out. Tribalism had triumphed. This wasn’t power-sharing. It was cantonisation. It was Balkanisation. Another false dawn.
All those disappointed bridges. The IRA ceasefire in 1994; the Good Friday Agreement; the Weston Park agreement in 2001; Hillsborough in November 2003; The IRA declaration that it was standing down in July 2005; decommissioning that winter: the St Andrews Agreement of last October; Assembly elections; and March 26.
To be sure it was sad to see the SDLP slip down to just 16 seats and have to face the reality of having only one ministry. It wasn't nice to see moderate unionism outflanked, outmanoeuvred and outplayed by the DUP.
I have likened Sinn Féin before to the cuckoo who laid its egg in the SDLP nest. Or as a senior SDLP figure put it this week, SF has stolen the SDLP’s clothes, ill-fitting as they are. And on the other side, the same can be said for the DUP’s stealthy moderation over the past five years.
But there’s another version of history that could be inferred from this week’s events. The DUP and SF were both given thumping mandates. And strangely enough, the mandates were very much pro-devolution, pro-powersharing.
This was clearly demonstrated by the routing of the splinter republican and loyalist parties. The former SF activists who opposed its decision on policing got salamandered at the polls. The handful of other DUP naysayers got trounced – including Paul Berry in Newry-South Armagh. The UK Unionist Party leader Robert McCartney saw his seat disappear and his party reduced to an empty husk.
One of the great paradoxes of this election was that the candidate who actually took Bob McCartney’s seat was Brian Wilson, winning the Green Party its first seat in the Assembly. That was a crucial breakthrough.
This was a small sign of hope, of a society keen to move on, to make a painful transition, to move from crisis to normality, from vetoism to democracy. It was shown too in the relatively stable showing of the SDLP (admittedly with slippage) and by the strong showing of the Alliance Party. They just scraped their six seats in 2003 but comfortably retained and consolidated this time around.
From parsing the results you got a sense that the main political parties are lagging behind their electorate, that they has not quite copped on to the sense of impatience there is for change. There were a couple of neat illustrations of that.
For one, there was the election of the first Assembly member from an ethnic background. Alliance MLA Anna Lo, who took a seat in South Belfast, was born in Hong Kong.
And then there was the eyebrow-raising (if slightly unscientific) text poll run by Stephen Nolan on his show on BBC radio. Some 83% of respondents wanted the principal parties to enter government, without further negotiation. That bears repeating. Without further negotiation.
Of course, the DUP being the DUP, they will do things at their own pace. And that may mean further negotiation, lots of it. At the same time, while the Reverend roared as of old, other figures of the party were making more mollifying sounds. Jeffrey Donaldson volunteered the observation on Morning Ireland yesterday that perhaps Michelle Gildernew had been ‘off message’ in her comments on dissident republicans. Nigel Dodds was also clarifying and softening his ‘not in my lifetime’ stance, saying it related solely to the appointment of a SF justice minister, not to sharing power with republicans.
Granted the DUP will not be rushing to sign their names to devolved government immediately. We are still standing on a pier. But we are so close to the other side that already it’s beginning to feel like a bridge.
This is my column from today's Irish Examiner