If you’re familiar with Northern Irish culture then you’ll no doubt have heard of the Sham Fight. Each 13th July, those of a sober disposition, and whose Twelfth is therefore enjoyed with ice cream and the like, join those who can manage a third consecutive day on the drink in a tiny village called Scarva. For it is there that the Royal Black Preceptory, a kind of elite rung of the Orange Order hold their annual demonstration.
The climax of the day comes when the Boyne is re-enacted. Men in wigs half-heartedly slash at each other with blunt swords. Replica 17th century muskets fire off blanks which create a lot of smoke and a lot of noise but ultimately do no harm. In the end the result Is predictable. King William stands triumphant over James and everyone goes home happy for another year.
It’s all a bit of harmless fun that seems to have largely escaped the evil eye of those who take offence at just about everything nowadays. Quite when this tradition started is unclear – the Sham Fight has always been this way – just like our elections.
This year’s electoral sham fight started when James entered the field. Throwing a right RHI at William, the latter stumbled, seemingly felled attempting to parry what turned out to be a dummy thrust. Just about managing to get to his feet, William’s eyes were transfixed on the potential killer blow coming in from the left. An Irish Language Act.
Sensing an opportunity to counter, William closed in to use his opponent’s move against him. He countered the Irish Language Act with a classic Union-saving parry. Now it was James’s turn to fall to the ground. Muskets began to sound as more warriors entered the fray. Soon the noise was deafening and the two Kings were obscured by smoke. And so the battle continued for another few weeks. Eventually the sheer weight of numbers on William’s side will surely win the day.
In a normal electoral system the battle is for the swing voters in the middle, for it is they who decide the outcome. In Northern Ireland however this isn’t the case. What we’re essentially witnessing is a charade by two parties who will have to sit down and carve out a truce when it’s all over. Like the actual Sham Fight, the noise, the cross words, the seemingly endless physical struggle, are all for effect. Nothing is to be decided on this field of battle – the whole campaign is just a way of getting more spectators to become active participants.
And when it comes to the conclusion of the battle who really remembers each King’s opening gambits, or what the war was about in the first place?
The delusion that this election is somehow about a botched heating scheme, as utterly scandalous as that whole affair is, is apparent. But when the troops have left this field absolutely nothing will be changed by this whole affair. Not RHI – the enquiry was committed to without an election. Not an Irish Language Act – the DUP will never agree to it. Not the one thing we always vote on and the one thing that has never been on the table, the Union.
As inevitable as William’s annual victory at Scarva is the certainty of the DUP and Sinn Fein emerging as the largest parties and sitting down and knocking out a deal. Because once you’ve done your bit, the party comes first again.
People really have to ask themselves – are we willing to walk away from this attention-seeking Sham Fight masquerading as a democratic process, muddy and covered in gunshot residue, only to return the next year? Or are we finally going to see it for what it is?