Sunday 25 April 2010

From May 7 it’s the Assembly that counts

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
That walking shadow today is the Westminster election. Last year it was the European election. Tales full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. And why do they signify nothing? Because the representatives from Northern Ireland have no power – none whatsoever in Europe, and none in Westminster unless a perfect combination of circumstances gives them, and only them, the balance of power – for which the probability is close to zero.

Governmental power in Northern Ireland is split between three bodies – the European institutions, Westminster and Stormont. In Europe Northern Ireland practically does not exist – it has no Commissioner, no members of the Court of Justice or the Court of Auditors, and a paltry three MEPs who are members of irrelevant groupings. Yet, as many people complain, most of our laws come from Europe! Northern Ireland’s power to influence them is zero – Northern Ireland is a vassal state.

Westminster, still the source of some laws – but not many – is almost as devoid of Northern Irish influence. Forget the hubris – even if the Tories win on May 6, Northern Ireland will remain irrelevant and Reg Empey will never have a significant cabinet position.

The only body here Northern Irish people exert some control overt their own lives is Stormont. Stormont is the real prize, and the more representation that the parties have there the more real power they can exert. The Westminster elections are just a taster – winning or losing a seat makes no difference whatsoever, except as an indicator of strength in a constituency. The real contest is for vote-share, not seats in Westminster. Sinn Féin, who do not – and will not, despite the fantasies of some unionists – take up their seats in Westminster, still contest the elections, simply to put down a marker for next year. The TUV is presumably doing the same, because their chances of winning any seats on May 6 are remote – but it may invigorate them for 2011. All the parties are competing this year with an eye on next year, when the real division of power will be decided for another four years.

After the sound and fury dies down on May 7 the petty pace of Northern Irish politics will creep onwards, from day to day, until the Assembly elections next year. Then real politics and real competition will break out. And after that? Well, to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow will keep coming.

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