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Northern Ireland local elections: Challenge of broadening coalition for inclusive new Ireland is next

Those who believe deeper change is required will need to demonstrate we are capable of building it

Northern Ireland elections nationalist

Even for Northern politics, the past year has felt like a stuck record. The Democratic Unionist Party’s nihilistic boycott of devolved institutions continues, even after practical concerns over our post-Brexit arrangements have been addressed by the UK and European Union, and even as public services here face grim cuts at the hands of a UK secretary of state who seems relaxed about punishing the vulnerable for DUP intransigence. An election to the Assembly happened last year, but its results have so far been left unimplemented.

Our politics has felt frozen in carbonite, like Han Solo at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, waiting for the DUP to make peace with reality while our public services are pushed to the limit and beyond. These council elections are about everyday but important matters of local government. There are diverse local issues and a diversity of established local champions running for all parties, including my own, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and a significant number of Independents with large personal followings in specific places.

Headline polling struggles to capture these nuances, but there is also a wider political and, indeed, constitutional context. There always is in the North, for good or ill. It appears likely that, at some point in the weeks or months after the elections, the DUP will re-enter Stormont. Indeed the first election pledge in its literature is actually to re-establish the Assembly and Executive – once it secures usefully unspecific guarantees on Northern Ireland’s place in the union.

It is after all in their overwhelming strategic interest to re-enter Stormont. Immoral and infuriating as the DUP’s behaviour has been, the outcome of this council election will not alter those calculations, whatever signal the non-unionist electorate is encouraged to send. By definition, unionism requires functioning government in Northern Ireland more than any other political grouping.


But we all require government of some kind. For four of the past six years, there has been none in the North. Since Sinn Féin first collapsed the institutions in 2017, the only sustained period of devolved government was during the Covid pandemic. To list the negative consequences would take the whole of this newspaper, and this week the civil servants left in charge are taking the opportunity to spell out the scale of damage now facing public services as a result of the current draft budget. As well as further pain for the health service, this could mean irreparable cuts to youth and early-year services, and countless others.

A new Executive will need to urgently mitigate some of these consequences, and put in place a credible programme for government to actually deliver improvements to the health service – currently among the worst performing in western Europe – as well as take advantage of the unique economic position the North now finds itself in at the crossroads of the EU and UK markets.

For those who identify as nationalist – or perhaps don’t identity as either unionist or nationalist but aspire to something bigger and more ambitious than our current dysfunctional arrangements – we will soon face the challenge of broadening the coalition for constitutional change and an inclusive new Ireland. As Fintan O’Toole argued this week, the widening gap between economic performance in the respective jurisdictions North and South will continue to beg the question of longer-term change and its possibilities. Answering this question isn’t merely about righting historic wrongs, but rather better enabling the North, and the whole island, to address the challenges of the 21st century together.

Beyond Thursday, the North will first need to be governed. Then those who believe that deeper change is required will need to demonstrate we are capable of building a broad and plural movement for change capable of transcending – and ultimately ending – the historic divisions that so obviously still hold us back.

Matthew O’Toole MLA is the leader of the SDLP Assembly group and leader of the Opposition at Stormont