Daniel Hannan blogs every day at www.hannan.co.uk.
The happiest aspect of this election has gone largely unremarked: Northern Ireland is returning to full democracy.
Until now, the existence of a separate party system in the Province condemned it to exclusion. Its MPs couldn’t aspire to ministerial office, meaning that executive power was necessarily wielded by people from Great Britain.
This had several baleful consequences. For one thing, Ulster was largely run by quangos. Lacking proper democratic oversight, the executive agencies in Northern Ireland ballooned, and the proportion of state spending reached Soviet levels. The best and brightest graduates made the rational decision to seek public sector employment, sapping the enterprise of a people once famed throughout the world for their thrift.
At the same time, politics was widely seen as a dirty, dangerous and disagreeable business. With honourable exceptions, decent people shunned representative office. Ulster Protestants sent their children, in large numbers, to English and Scottish universities, and many remained in Great Britain. Those who returned shuddered at the thought of entering public life.
In consequence, politics became tribal and defensive– even within the largest parties. David Trimble was the first ever Ulster Unionist leader to have graduated from a university, and was regarded as too-clever-by-half by many of his colleagues when he tried to create a more imaginative and modern Unionism.
Worse, the communities turned in on themselves. In 1921, three Roman Catholics sat as Unionists in Irish constituencies. By the 1960s, politics had become so binary that the UUP was debating whether to allow Catholics as members.
Identity politics takes the competition out of the system. Look at any party in Europe that speaks exclusively for a linguistic or religious minority. With a chunk of voters who feel obliged to vote for “their” side, its leaders become complacent and often corrupt. Northern Ireland is no exception to the rule.