To paraphrase Dickens, it was the best of nights and the worst of nights.
Colm Eastwood, the SDLP leader, has said the SDLP’s winning of two seats – in South Belfast and in Foyle – was the story of the election. He’s wrong. They were a story of the election- when a coffin lid is removed from the inside it’s a pretty dramatic moment. But the story of the election was the defeat – clear defeat – of the DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds by John Finucane. In the aftermath, Finucane mentioned his murdered father: to have seen his son become Lord Mayor of Belfast and then win a Westminster election would indeed have been a proud moment.
There were other good things that the election delivered. Unionism now holds just one Belfast seat – North, South and West are in the hands of nationalists/republicans. If the unionists can’t see the writing on the Belfast walls, they’re purblind. The nationalist/republican tide just keeps getting higher every time out, and the DUP are in irreversible decline.
Then there was, as with Michael Portillo, the look on Dodds’s face when he was defeated. To paraphrase Procul Harum, “And his face at first just ghostly/Turned a whiter shade of pale.”
That was the better part of the night. The more negative part of the night was that Jeremy Corbyn was trounced by the Toryboy Johnson. Like it or not, we are locked into another five years of Tory rule, which almost certainly will involve greater hardship for those who can least afford it. Maybe the British working class don’t quite grasp this or have bought the myth of making Britain Great Again. Maybe they bought instead the myth of Making Britain Great Again .Once you allow the poison of Brexit into the mix, you’re baking a poisonous cake you’ll be force-fed over the next five years.
But nil desperandum – don’t despair. Hardhip will follow Brexit – and soft or hard Brexit, our Toxic Leprous Colony (TLC) will suffer more than most places in the UK. But we should use the time wisely. We should make sure that a citizens’ assembly/forum is set up as quickly as possible –certainly immediately after the south’s spring election. If Leo won’t do it, we should do it ourselves. It should be a forum that is open to all parties operating on the island of Ireland. The unionists almost certainly will shun it, at least at first, but we shouldn’t let that hold us back.
Everything should be on the table: a national health service that is properly funded. A return by a reunited Ireland to the Commonwealth. A special place of welcome for unionists, with the option of a joint if temporary dual Taoiseach role, as in Stormont. Reassurances to unionists that their identity will be respected: they might, for example, retain Hillsborough Castle as Queen Elizabeth’s personal possession – unionists could attend there to receive their OBEs , MBEs, etc. The national anthem might be changed. Likewise the national flag.
I’m not saying all these changes should be implemented, but they should be given thoughtful and generous consideration. Unionists are our fellow-countrymen and women. As we increasingly hold power in the north, we should be thinking of ways, devising possible packages, that will create a truly united country. Scotland is showing us the way; we can and we must follow.