The final run-in to what looks set to be a momentous election in Northern Ireland has been predictably divisive and ugly.
The Belfast Telegraph reported the other day that Hannah Kenny, a candidate for People Before Profit standing in the East Belfast constituency, was left ‘deeply distressed’ after three men attacked and threatened her while she was out campaigning.
One of them grabbed her by the throat telling her in ‘graphic detail’ what would happen if she returned to the area.
Disgraceful though such an incident clearly is, it has become a feature of this campaign, with other candidates facing similar intimidation from loyalists in what should be a free and fair election.
The SDLP’s Paul Doherty was approached by a group of men while he was putting up election posters on the Shankill Road. They told him they would rip them down and that he should not return to the area.
‘What was even more frustrating,’ he said, ‘was the fact that we tried to engage and have a conversation about what really matters and what is really impacting people on both the Shankill and areas like the Falls and right across communities – and that is health, it’s housing and it is the cost of living.’
His party colleague, Elsie Trainor, was attacked as she bravely pursued two young thugs who were removing her election posters in broad daylight. She was pushed and punched for her trouble.
The party’s deputy leader, Claire Hanna, accurately described a ‘sinister cloud’ hanging over the campaign.
Having still only an elliptical commitment to democratic norms, loyalists sense change is coming, and they do not like it.
It’s part of a wider pattern, with hardening rhetoric about the Northern Ireland Protocol revealing just how little progress Unionism/Loyalism has made in reconciling itself to the realities of the post-Good Friday Agreement settlement.
There seems genuine surprise that Sinn Fein is in serious contention to top the poll this week. That a Republican first minister is neither here nor there in terms of what they would be able to do, constrained as they would be by the inter-locking role of the deputy first minister, is lost on them.
The optics are everything for Unionists and Loyalists in their emotionally brittle, zero-sum world. If the other side is ascendant, then it must be at their expense, and even something as fundamental as the democratic process must be undermined to maintain the failing status quo.
‘Every democratic means available should be deployed to see the Protocol confined to history,’ the Orange Order declared recently. But there must be ‘no return to Stormont whilst the Protocol-related issues remain unresolved.’
So, democracy is fine if they get the result they want, but it can be cast aside if they lose.
The same message came from the Loyalist Communities Council, the unelected front organisation for the still active Loyalist paramilitaries, who these days also claim to represent a series of community groups in a so-called ‘union of Unionists’ (a tautology reminiscent of the five ‘D’s of ‘Dodgeball’).
In a series of purity tests ahead of the election, they demanded that Unionist parties rule out any prospect of a nationalist first minister – even if Sinn Fein tops the poll – and, vis-à-vis the Protocol, that all laws are made ‘exclusively within the United Kingdom’s jurisdiction’.
And as if we haven’t heard enough from paleo-Unionism, the Free Presbyterian Church weighed in last week, labelling one of its own ministers who had attended a meeting in the Vatican with Pope Francis, as a ‘heretic‘ for doing so. A reminder what unreformed bigotry looks like.
This is the politics of the laager, where generosity to the other, even if it might help to normalise Northern Ireland and thus prolong the constitutional status quo, is entirely unthinkable.
Nationalists are not merely opponents, but ‘enemies’. This is the rhetoric emanating from anti-Protocol gatherings as a procession of ill-tempered speakers, often invoking Carson and Craig and the formation of the UVF a century ago, address a few hundred die-hard loyalists in provincial towns.
Of course, not all Unionists are buying it. Many will vote for Alliance or rally behind Doug Beattie’s Ulster Unionists, who are seen, (with scant evidence it bears saying), as a more liberal option.
Beattie has had his constituency window put in, while a poster of him at one of the anti-Protocol events (which he, personally, refuses to attend over concerns they are ‘raising tensions‘), had a noose drawn around his neck.
For choosing not to abase himself by attending, Beattie, a decorated British soldier, is dismissed as a ‘Lundy’. Not much chance of cross community appeal when even a recipient of the Military Cross is regarded as a sell-out.
So, what happens after Thursday?
What this election will show us is that Northern Ireland is changing; slowly, but irrevocably.
Unionism faces a crisis entirely of its own making in terms of Brexit and the Protocol, but it is also reaping the consequences of its century-long unwillingness to make Northern Ireland habitable for Nationalists.
In a bid to win over wavering voters, Donaldson has repeatedly claimed that a victory for Sinn Fein opens the door to Irish unity. He might find out he is right.
The other error has been to make the election a referendum on the Protocol. It has been clear throughout that parties like the TUV and DUP who are opposed to it will be massively outweighed by those that back it, or do not care much either way.
If the DUP is pushed into second place (or even third) and if those calling for the Protocol to be scrapped are in a clear minority, then Unionists will have no-one to blame but themselves.
Kevin Meagher is author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How it Will Come About.’