Margaret Ritchie

“Well, I tink before I answer that question I would like to pay dribute to the sitting member, she’s been workin dis issue for years.”

“I’d like to agree with that — I dink we’d all like to agree with dat.”

And I’ll drop the accent now. But this is Northern Ireland, and it was all a bit odd. In the St Patrick Centre (he’s buried here), all old local stone repurposed with steel and glass at the centre of the small, traditional, ugly town of Downpatrick, with eight candidates arrayed before us, there was a level of furious agreement … on local hospital closures. And specialist clinics and the centralisation of the A and E and blah blah blah isn’t it curious how issues that are most real to the people there are always the most boring to anyone from outside.

“Four thousand people marched down the street here about the hospital,” someone told me at the event. “It was the biggest thing for years and years.” Clearly.

The hustings spoke of it for the first 20 minutes, with the sitting Westminster member — Margaret Ritchie of the nationalist-lite, very lite, SDLP — going up against Jim Wells from the Democratic Unionist Party, who also happens to be the Northern Ireland health minister. He won’t win; she will, and her only competition is the Sinn Fein candidate, Chris Hazzard, a smart-suited young man, part of the new SF generation, 13 years old when the Good Friday agreement was signed.

It’s rare that a Northern Irish seat will change hands, nationalist to unionist. Indeed, for many years they never changed hands at all. Now the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which once dominated nationalist Westminster politics, is down to its last three seats of the nine it once held. Sinn Fein are hoping to take one more off them this time, but they’re not going to do it by any sort of head-on challenge on the issues that brought both parties into being.

It’s about hospitals and schools, and the Westminster bloc grant, and what stance is most likely to get the best deal. When NI politics goes into the concrete details, what strikes anyone from outside is how constructive it all is. “It’s like asking about a Protestant or Catholic approach to drains,” said Chesterton of some pointless squabble, and there’s a sense of that here.

There’s no left or right view of whether stroke treatment services should be distributed or centralised, but such questions will be seized on elsewhere as a way to spruik a position. Here, one suspects, division has been so deadly serious that there is no desire to project it onto topics capable of resolution.

No Labour, no Greens, no Lib-Dems here: the main game was SDLP and Sinn Fein, with DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party here also, mainly to biff each other. Ritchie for the SDLP looked like a Eurocrat with a PhD in harbour systems administration, and she kinda was that type: NI, de facto is integrated into so many forms of sovereignty — local, power sharing with the republic, the Union and the EU, which funnels money their way in a process that has the faintest air of a protection racket — that they have become world leaders in reinventing the state. Hazzard, suited, neat Sinn Fein, is a professional politician doing a PhD in recent Irish history as is, I would find, around 40% of the population.

Meanwhile, the two unionist parties were Biff and Boff, two lean middle-aged men in shirt-sleeves — singlets showing through underneath — and the “Proddy ‘do”, a severe short-back-and-sides of silver-grey hair, an inch-thick layer piled on the top, which has survived through the decades to re-emerge, making them look like two hipsters spending nine minutes on a filter coffee. And as pure distraction, a Tory and a UKIP bloke, which is, UKIP in South Down, I dunno, it’s like finding that the Kiwanis kept an office running in Peking all through the Cultural Revolution.

Their irrelevance was measured by the fact that they did try to use local issues to advance their policies. “Well, it’s all very well to talk about Stormont and Westminster … but the real problem is Brussels,” said the UKIP man, to barely concealed irritation.

When he had done, and when the horsey, braying woman from the NI Tories — a real Ascendancy accent, orders barked with a mild Irish lilt — had finished, everyone got back down to debating the pros and cons of regionalisation, specialisation, the city versus the provinces, life chances versus community-centredness.

“You can say that a specialist unit increases survival chances by 45%, but if I have to travel two hours either way to visit my husband, then what worth is it?” one woman remarked. “Why do things always have to be centralised over there, not over here?”

It went round and round, but in a productive manner, observations adding to each other, channelling of community solidarity.

And then someone asked a question about same-sex marriage, and the shit hit the fan. The shit hit the fan, came off the fan, and in coming off the fan, the shit hit the back of the room, and, on the way of going there, sprayed everyone in the audience with shit as it went.

The crowd was in uproar in five seconds, a suspicion in the air from the moment that the MC announced, “our next question is from Jarrad, an artist”. An artist? In South-shagging-Down? This could only mean trouble. He put the question in the usual pincer fashion: “This community now believes in equality. Will you support equal marriage?” Which was a hell of a question for almost everyone. Same-sex marriage was introduced by the Coalition and Scots government to Great Britain in 2013, but NI makes its own rules on these things, and the rule was “nae”.

Well not fully nae. The DUP-Sinn Fein power-sharing government had introduced civil partnerships, but full marriage equality was a blown-up bridge too far. Sinn Fein, a party that is at its root Marxist, embraced marriage equality years ago, and simply sold it to its less progressive sections. “We’ve struggled for equality, and this is a part of equality, and this is what we believe,” Hazzard said, to some gnashing of teeth.

Ritchie at her harbour-systems-management best took us through a torturous series of arguments saying she too believed in equality and in the end supported the status quo of civil partnership. It was the most impeccably politiciany politician thing to say. The Tory defended same-sex marriage, with some guts it must be said, as parts of her audience booed and heckled; UKIP talked about Brussels; and the Ulster Unionist Party guy, a gnomic little man in a dark blue suit and knitted waistcoat, started in on Genesis.

“Now it is well known that Jacob was a smooth man and Esau was a hairy man. But let us consider Abraham and Sarah …” It was the pure voice of old Ulster, of a grey city of churches on every corner, and pubs only, and stout; of woollen suits and pinned-up hair, of tight terraced streets and a Bible the size of a child’s coffin in every home. A world entire of itself, listening only to itself, a world that had come in the space of one lifetime from no cinema or greyhounds on Sunday to fekkin same-sex marriage!

The day after this event I spoke to David McCann from Slugger O’Toole, the statelet’s best political blog, about what the hell the Ulster Unionist Party was now. They had been the mainstream, now they were the freaks.

“They’re about five different groups. The ones up in Belfast wouldn’t be talking like this.” True enough, but weirder still, in the process of modernisation, Protestant energy had flown to the DUP, Ian Paisley’s old party, raucous and apocalyptic; crucially, unionist but not particularly British. The DUP is Ulster without apology; in its rhetoric it feels as far from Britain as the republicans do. What does it believe? That it represents a beleaguered people with their own way of life, looked down on, and to be defended.

Jim Wells wasn’t having any nonsense about a difficult, debatable issue, etc, etc. “There is no way on this earth that I will ever agree that marriage is anything but between a man and a woman!” he roared. A few people began gently heckling him, and he reacted as if stung, slapped.

His fingers ran through his grey mop, he trembled, the spirit of Paisley was in him: “EVERYONE KNOW THAT A CHILD IS BETTER OFF WITH A MOTHER AND A FATHER! A CHILD WITHOUT A FAMILY IS MORE LIKELY TO BE ABUSED! A CHILD OF HOMOSEXUAL PARENTS IS MORE LIKELY TO BE ABUSED” and at that point he had tipped over the edge. The crowd roared back, left and right, nationalist and unionist, the Tory roared with them, the DUP man shook his head slowly. Wells stared wide-eyed back at us all. He wasn’t really here, at a hustings anymore. He was somewhere else, in some private space.

Later, after the meeting, he would excuse himself, say he had been under terrible strain due to his wife, and others would say that for him (during the meeting he tried to deny he had ever said it). The excuse invited the usual riposte: sure, I always yell out bigoted bullshit when I’m a little tense. Two days later, while out canvassing, he had an argument with lesbian parents, which led — this being the UK — to him being reported to the police. Then he was gone, resigned as Northern Ireland health minister, a huge blow to the DUP’s credibility. At the time I hadn’t even realised what a moment it was. I thought that was just the sort of stuff that unionists say all the time.Wells’ roar of protest was about a lot more than same-sex marriage of course; it was abut a vanishing world, and about the way it has, in some ways, vanished more dramatically in Northern Ireland than elsewhere. The place had gone rapidly from one of total and entrenched opposition and contestation to one of negotiation, reconciliation and innovation.

But in that decades-long process it has rarely been led by the unionist parties, who had to be dragged to it. The whole process since the late ’70s had been driven by the (P)IRA/Sinn Fein, as they made the transition to a political strategy, and a different idea of how the community would be put together. Part of that was talking back to its own community and advancing an expanded idea of citizenship and a republic.

There was going to be no malarkey about Adam and Steve, etc, a civil rights movement was a civil rights movement. The nationalist community has had access to something the unionists didn’t — a new narrative, a new meaning, as part of Europe and a new world. You can see that in the two old districts — the Catholic Falls Road area is filled with murals of solidarity, with Basques, with Palestinians, well designed, well painted. The Protestant Shankill road ones have always been heartfelt, badly painted paeans to victimisation and put-upon-ness, grim memories of sectarian killings and bad portraits of the queen mother.

In the nearly two decades since the Good Friday Agreement, they have had occasion to not only feel that the UK betrayed them, but that the UK is going to wink out of existence before Northern Ireland does. The leadership in the DUP are faced with the task of mediating between a community sunk in the deep pleasures of nostalgia and self-pity and the European post-modern party they have become.

Sinn Fein don’t lose their balance because their position is consistent and well-worked-out. The unionists are caught in a contradictory process, and it tears them apart at regular intervals. The question is how that past inheres in the present. Most obviously they do for one big reason: the second-largest party in the province doesn’t take the seats it is elected to, because it regards them as, in some sense, non-existent.

Yet though abstention is something the SDLP hit Sinn Fein with again and again, turning any issue around to it — “Yes the sky is blue, and that’s why you need a member who will sit Parliament” I almost expected her to say — none of the argument was about legitimacy. It was all about whether you were better served by an actual MP or by a party negotiating with Westminster as if it weren’t part of it. It’s a weird game.

In the last 30  years, Sinn Fein has passed the SDLP to take five seats, and the party is now looking at one or two more. They offered SDLP an electoral pact similar to the one that the UUP and DUP have struck in four seats, trying to wipe out both a couple of Sinn Fein holds, and Naomi Long took the seat of East Belfast for the centrist, cross-community Alliance Party — she’s faced protests and death threats from unionist members ever since, as her party voted to restrict the number of days the Union Jack flies over the Belfast city hall. Long aside, the unionists have made a pact because Sinn Fein might get in; the SDLP won’t because Sinn Fein might get in.

“It’s all about Stormont,” McCann tells me later. “We’re a long way from Westminster, and it has no effect here.” It’s how you relate to Westminster. And so abstention and negotiating with Westminster as a separate power is no less effective, maybe more so, than actually being there.

You’ve got to remember how changed things are. I mean, Hazzard was born in 1984, a teenager at the time of Good Friday. It’s a new world. It is, but everyone seems to be doing or have done a PhD on postwar Irish history. McCann’s is on North-South relations; Hazzard’s is on republicanism south of the border.

Spoken to after the hustings, he’s friendly and engaging, seeking to play down the party’s very existence in Westminster. “If it’s a close result, then your abstention becomes a crucial …” “Ah there’s not many of us, you’re exaggerating …” “It’s not a problem if the absence of your votes gets an austerity program over the line?” “We’re an abstentionist party, we’ll never take our seats.”

He’s never less than polite, genuinely interested in talking. We chat for a while about Cathal Goulding, the man who modernised the IRA in the ’60s, and the urban myth that he was one of the first people outside France to read Althusser. My idea of fun.

Ritchie, by contrast, seemed to me to be a bit of an arsehole, drifting through the foyer after the event, gladhanding, love-bombing me when someone told her I was a journo. “And what would Australia be interested in?” she said. “How you can have a two-hour debate with someone who wouldn’t take their seat, and never mention the state,” I said, and she froze, with a look of real hatred passed across her face. “We’re beyond all that,” she said, sweeping up the two eager supporters she had been urging me to speak to. “Come on, let’s go,” and she was gone. And, though she’ll survive this one, so too is her party. So many victims …

Back in Belfast the next day, Wells’ outburst was all over the papers. History had actually happened. Wells’ remarks were causing turmoil inside and outside the party. “The DUP’s really a coalition of all sorts,” McCann said. “There’s DUP people up in Belfast who’ll be horrified by Wells’ remarks.” That seemed true enough. It had happened in Belfast too.

The first time I came here, about 20  years ago, the place remained a world apart, a reminder of what working-class Protestant cities had all once been like, but with a Third World-style DMZ in the middle. The zone is still there, the marching season is still an annual struggle, but around it the cafes have risen, the galleries, the cute bars — and inevitably, the “city of culture” tag, which pretty much seals the place off for good. That is the usual dilemma for such a place.

Westminster may be a sideshow for Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland might be a sideshow for Westminster — but it could take a starring role. If the election is close, the NI vote becomes vital. If the Tories and UKIP won 283-286 seats total and the Lib-Dems 26-28, then the array of DUP/UUP vote becomes crucial. The question of whether they could get a majority would then come down to the views of Long and an independent, Sylvia Hermon, in the seat of North Down.

Hermon, centre-leftish on economic matters, left the UUP after it made an explicit pact with the Conservatives in 2009. Having left the party before the 2010 election, she was returned with a 14,000 majority — so she is in no doubt about how her constituents feel about a Tory deal. Ireland being Ireland, the opponent the unionist right fielded against her was named Ian Parsley, representing Ulster Conservative Unionist New Force — yes, Ian Parsley from UCUNF.

So, with a close result, either Labour gets up in the end — or North Down becomes the home of the Ulster International Airport-Spaceport-University-free Guinness-kittens-and-hugs Centre. No one’s paid much attention to Hermon this campaign, or to Long — perhaps because the idea of the creation of government coming down to this narrow a margin is too ridiculous to think about.

“I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victorious,” St Patrick wrote, of his call back to Ireland. Might not be the last time.