Belfast Telegraph

NI Election: Leadership of unionist community on the line on March 2

Edmund Curran

By So after a decade of power-sharing the Northern Ireland Executive has collapsed. An election is unlikely to solve anything, and will certainly deepen divisions in the unionist community.

No one can predict what the outcome will be but everyone knows the future as prescribed in the Good Friday Agreement is in dire jeopardy.

Almost two decades after that historic settlement between unionists, nationalists and republicans, the lost tribes of Ulster are heading towards a political la la land. La La Land? In the week during which the award-winning film plays to packed audiences in local cinemas it is worth remembering the dictionary definition of la la land - "the mental state of someone who is not aware of what is really happening".

That seems an appropriate description for the current condition of many people in Northern Ireland as we try to make sense of how Stormont's power-sharing Executive could collapse in a few short weeks.

Afterwards, it may not be put back together before many months have passed. Or, if the political venom on display at Stormont yesterday is a gauge, then maybe not at all.

If an election could be seen to help, most people would say bring it on. Yet even on that front there is no agreement. In the unionist community, an election was never anticipated and is hardly welcome.

The poll on March 2 looks more like a collection of referenda. One pits the outgoing Executive parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, against the middle-ground of the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance.

A second referendum is to determine the balance of power within the unionist and nationalist communities. The DUP versus Ulster Unionists, Sinn Fein versus the SDLP with smaller parties on the margins.

There is a third referendum: whether people choose to vote at all given the level of anger directed at the Stormont institutions. The split at the Assembly election in May showed only 55% voting, 45% staying at home. Not just party allegiance will be tested on March 2. Dented confidence in devolution for Northern Ireland is also at stake and more polling day apathy cannot be ruled out.

The split among unionists at last year's Assembly election recorded the DUP on 202,567 first preference votes and 38 seats, the Ulster Unionists on 87,302 and 16 seats. Given that the numbers of seats are reducing to 90 from 108, the DUP would have only 31 and the Ulster Unionists 13, assuming that the votes cast for these parties last May are reduced by the same ratio as the drop in seats.

Of course, voting patterns do not adhere so strictly to such simple mathematics, as evident in the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump's success in the US.

Given the level of anger within the unionist community at the RHI scandal, the only way for the DUP to go seems to be down, and in the worse case scenario, losing votes to the Ulster Unionists. If that were to happen then Arlene Foster's future as leader would be tenuous and the party's authority diminished in any post-election talks.

It is possible that the despair of many people at the Executive's collapse could encourage more to vote. The so-called silent majority might surface, as well as others who didn't bother to vote last May. That would be good news for the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance.

However, there is a more worrying alternative scenario for all the parties. The trend of apathy at the polls has led to tens of thousands of people staying at home on election days in the past. Assembly turnouts have fallen 15% over the years, and proved particularly damaging to the Ulster Unionists. Any continuation would be a disaster for the party and its leader Mike Nesbitt, and hardly a vote of confidence in Foster either.

So the choice facing the unionist community is three-fold.

Vote as you did last May and maintain the DUP's dominance of unionism and of Stormont.

Or switch allegiance to the Ulster Unionists because you are annoyed with the way the DUP has handled the RHI debate.

Or register any disapproval by joining the burgeoning ranks of the apathetic.

It is much too early to try and predict which route the unionist community will choose. Certainly the manner in which Sinn Fein has widened the arguments to cover a shopping list of demands must help the DUP and maybe persuade some of its of doubting supporters to think again about voting for the Ulster Unionists.

If the Ulster Unionists can make mud stick to the DUP from the RHI scandal then the balance between the two parties could alter significantly and Foster's future would be in doubt.

However, if Sinn Fein spooks the unionist community, as looks very possible, then the DUP will ride the storm now directed against it. Sinn Fein has bounced the unionist parties into an election which they did not see coming. It is not just the future of power-sharing that is at stake. The leadership of the unionist community is on the line on March 2.

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