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4 March 2017

Tribalism wins the day again and it's all just so depressing

The count in full flow
The count in full flow

"Isn't Northern Ireland depressing?" wrote a Dublin friend in an email, as the election results began to come in yesterday.

"I'm devoid of words, apart from 'a plague on both their sodding parties,'" is what I regret to say was my response, since I was feeling extremely unfriendly towards both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

I've been following Northern Irish elections for decades and have regularly been deeply depressed by the tendency of Catholics to vote for murderers and Protestants to vote for bigots.

But, somehow, my natural optimism makes me think that things will be better this time.

But they rarely are and certainly aren't today.

Having split, but not shared, power for a decade, the two big parties have claimed to care about the people of Northern Ireland, but in fact, in the end, always put their own party interests first.

Hence, this completely unnecessary election, in which both parties - who deserved to be heavily punished by the electorate - instead used squalid tactics to help them scramble yet again to the top of their respective tribal mounds.

I expected nothing better of Sinn Fein, a party which, after all, exists to make Northern Ireland ungovernable, but I was very disappointed with the DUP, and particularly Arlene Foster, for throwing away an opportunity to win respect from moderate nationalists.

The party could have put a dent in sectarianism by attracting traditional Catholics, who have felt very alienated by the social radicalism adopted by both nationalist parties and whose traditional views on, for instance, abortion and same-sex marriage, fitted comfortably with those of most of the DUP.

But it didn't.

As the shape of the results became clear in mid-afternoon, BBC Radio Ulster's Seamus McKee suggested to the DUP's Paul Girvan that the party would be privately thinking, "Is this what we've achieved?"

Mr Girvan delivered the standard bluster about how it was entirely Sinn Fein's fault and the DUP had been given a vote of confidence. Asked similar questions, Sinn Fein spokespeople also produced the same kind of guff, but with more justification.

This election has been bad for moderates and bad for the DUP, but it's been helpful for Sinn Fein in getting them out of a tight spot.

Let's remind ourselves how this happened.

Sinn Fein - hit hard by Martin McGuinness's illness - turned it to their advantage.

Mr McGuinness, by far the most respected republican leader, for years has been assiduously keeping disillusioned hardliners onside.

Gerry Adams has far less credibility, so the only way he could keep them happy was to do a Samson, pull the temple down around his ears and send activists onto the streets for a sham fight with the traditional enemy.

He couldn't have done that if the DUP had not been unbelievably stupid in its handling of the RHI scandal.

All Arlene Foster had to do was to admit candidly that she was one of those primarily responsible for the mess, to apologise, to agree to step aside during the investigation and to promise to learn from her mistakes and do better next time.

Quite apart from anything else, there's every reason to think that the investigation will reveal that Sinn Fein also has much to be embarrassed about.

I'm one of many people who have never held any brief for the DUP, but who liked Arlene Foster and believed she could make it a better and friendlier party.

We have been watching her slow-motion car-crash with disbelief and horror.

Like many unionists before her, through obstinacy, she has walked straight into a Sinn Fein trap, shouting "No Surrender".

On top of that, if Mrs Foster had set out to insult moderate nationalists, she couldn't have done a better job.

Mostly, nationalists don't care about the Irish language, but if they think it's being insulted, they get upset.

Sinn Fein, of course, are much better at getting words right, but their language on the doorstep was as geared to stirring up ethnic tension ("We mustn't go back to being second-class citizens" was a refrain) as was that of the DUP.

So, once more, we had a "my-tribe-right-or-wrong" polarised vote.

"Same old, same old," said many tweeters.

Yep. Today, Northern Ireland is depressing.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards