The 2 March election for the Northern Ireland Assembly is, barring a huge upset, likely to see a rough continuity in the strength of the political forces. The real question is whether the DUP and Sinn Féin – who will almost certainly retain their dominance on both sides of the sectarian divide – will be able to revive their joint government, or whether a period of instability and direct rule from Westminster will follow.
This election, less than a year after the last one, follows an enormous scandal involving the DUP’s stewardship of a renewable heating subsidy, the details of which are complicated, but which looks likely to incur a cost of around half a billion pounds. This is a particularly sticky issue for the DUP as their leader and the incumbent First Minister, Arlene Foster, was the minister who introduced the scheme in the first place. The scandal has been a gift for Stormont’s opposition parties and eventually pushed Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness into resigning as deputy First Minister and collapsing the power-sharing Executive. McGuinness, who has been in frail health recently, left with a bitter broadside against the DUP’s record in office.
And yet, it seems inevitable that the outcome of the collapse will be some sort of reconstitution of the previous administration. The DUP and SF don’t like each other very much, but they can’t work without each other.
There are several factors, both structural and political, that lock the two big parties into this relationship. The starting point is that, under the Good Friday Agreement, all Assembly members (in practical terms, all parties) designate as Unionist, Nationalist or Other. The largest party of the largest designation nominates the First Minister and the largest party of the second largest designation nominates the deputy First Minister. The two first ministers are legally a joint post, and one can’t hold office without the other – so Arlene Foster ceased to hold office the moment that Martin McGuinness’ resignation took effect. And without the two first ministers there is no devolved Executive.
Back in 1998, this meant a rather prickly partnership between the Ulster Unionists’ David Trimble and the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon. But both of those established parties were outflanked soon enough by the DUP and Sinn Féin, which promised a more aggressive representation for their communal bloc; hence the unlikely installation of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness as first ministers. (The McGuinness and Paisley “Chuckle Brothers” double act was deeply odd, but one of those things that happens in peace processes. Almost as odd is McGuinness’s cult following among unionist businessmen who think he’s been the most effective minister in the Executive.) One thing that isn’t well understood is that, while every party with enough members in the Assembly can claim ministerial posts, it’s only the smaller parties that can refuse to take them up – this happened last year when the UUP, SDLP and Alliance refused to nominate ministers and formed an opposition. However, government is mandatory for the two biggest parties if there is to be government at all. The system doesn’t allow for a coalition to be cobbled together that excludes either SF or the DUP.
The electoral terrain also favours the two bigger parties (as well as the middle-of-the-road Alliance, which has a smaller but very loyal following among middle-class suburbanites). They’ve got more money, more members and better organisation than their rivals, which is an advantage in fighting a snap election. The UUP still has a fairly big membership and, under the leadership of former news anchor Mike Nesbitt, has been showing a little verve; but the SDLP continues to look old-fashioned and shambolic, particularly with Sinn Féin promoting younger candidates. Also, this election triggers a reduction in the Assembly’s size from 108 to 90 members – from six to five for each of the 18 constituencies – which will make it more difficult for challengers to squeeze them.
Let’s also consider the politics of the matter. Following on from the McGuinness resignation, SF leaders have been sounding less like coalition partners and more like the angry young men and women they were in the 1980s. Some of this is theatrical, but some of it is certainly real, and provoked by the DUP’s insistence on behaving as if SF are junior partners rather than equals. Since Stormont’s “petition of concern” mechanism – which requires cross-community support for contentious issues – gives the DUP an effective veto, SF priorities like the long-promised Irish Language Act can’t happen. Over the past few years, SF have also been burnishing their socially liberal credentials by pushing cause such as the legalisation of gay marriage which they know the DUP will veto. Absent the warm personal relationship between McGuinness and Paisley, it’s much harder to paper over the cracks, and SF leaders such as Michelle O’Neill denouncing DUP arrogance certainly rings true. They will also be very aware that for years now, their disgruntled working-class base in Belfast and Derry has been either drifting into abstention or flirting with smaller republican or leftist parties.
Having said that, SF broadening their attack works to the DUP’s advantage. What might hurt the DUP electorally is if SF were relatively quiet, and the UUP and Alliance had a free run against them on the issue of corruption. It’s true that the DUP base includes many farmers, who were the main beneficiaries of the heating subsidy; but their urban and suburban voters may not be so happy about it. However, with SF (who of course have their own electorate to think of) banging a drum against the DUP on a number of political fronts – and even mentioning the issue of a united Ireland – that makes it easier for the DUP to change the framing of the election away from the renewable heat debacle and towards the question of which unionist party will stand against “concessions” to Sinn Féin, a framing that very much helps Arlene Foster’s position.
So the two major parties are locked into a strange co-dependency relationship for the foreseeable future. That will present a tricky problem to be dealt with after the election. Relations between SF and Arlene Foster appear to have broken down entirely, yet without both parties there can be no Executive. The DUP might stage a coup against Foster, who is respected but not universally liked in the party, particularly by the fundamentalist wing; on the other hand, they won’t want to give their opponents a scalp. It is difficult to see how either party could back down without a massive loss of face.
Which leaves open the possibility that British proconsul James Brokenshire will have to declare that no Executive can be formed and therefore he is imposing direct rule. A cynic might say that it would suit the local parties to have the Brits impose unpopular measures such as welfare reform or water charges which Stormont has been putting off for years. On the other hand, local politicians love devolution, and it would be quite a wrench for the DUP in particular to give up their ministries and committee chairs. The coming period will show how difficult it is to put the house of cards back together.
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