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Northern Ireland Assembly Election: Why race to be First among equals holds such meaning

Two weeks today Northern Ireland goes to the polls to elect 108 new MLAs. But that is only the start of the horsetrading, writes Richard Wilford

Published 21/04/2016

First Minister Arlene Foster
First Minister Arlene Foster
Deputy Minister Martin McGuinness

For political anoraks, professional and amateur alike, election campaigns are manna from political heaven. Punctuated by even questionable opinion polls, they feed an appetite for news, views and opinion that seems insatiable.

Such a feeding frenzy is, of course, encouraged by the condition of both inter-and intra-party dynamics. The current shenanigans within the SDLP in West Tyrone over the candidacy of Daniel McCrossan and the earlier brouhaha in the same neck of the woods concerning Michelle Gildernew's selection as a Sinn Fein Assembly candidate supply plenty of meat and drink for election watchers.

By the same token Ruth Patterson's fall-out with the DUP and her decision to contest South Belfast adds particular spice to that inter-unionist battle, as does the more generalised remark by one of the UUP's candidates in Upper Bann, Doug Beattie, that he would "rather stick knitting needles in my eyes than vote DUP".

Mr Beattie's stinging rebuke is of particular interest, not because it discloses his own antipathy to a member of the wider and dysfunctional unionist party family, but rather for the response it elicited from the DUP's deputy leader Nigel Dodds.

Presenting his party as the chief advocate of an across-the-board pro-Union ticket, Mr Dodds warned of the "dangers of shredding the unionist vote" and conjured up the ultimate horror if his advice went unheeded: "The only way to ensure Sinn Fein does not become the largest party and Martin McGuinness is not elected First Minister is by rallying behind the only unionist party that can win: the DUP."

This is by no means the first time that the DUP has brandished this prospect. It was a centrepiece of its last two Assembly campaigns and was renewed by Mr Dodds at the launch of the party's campaign in early April.

In his speech on that occasion, he talked of "the chaos that would result without the DUP as the leading party at the heart of the Northern Ireland administration" - adding that the election would "crucially determine who the next First Minister will be".

That role, he insisted, is "the public face of Northern Ireland" at home and abroad and "tells the world who we are and what values we hold".

It certainly is the case that the prize of nominating the First Minister carries enormous symbolic value, even though the incumbent wields no more nor no less authority than the Deputy First Minister. There is, too, the practical advantage of holding the First Ministership, whereby the incumbent has the first ministerial pick in the d'Hondt-governed process of Executive formation. Depending on the respective seat-strengths of the DUP and Sinn Fein, the outcome of the election will also influence the overall communal balance of the new nine-member Executive, i.e. whether it has a unionist or a nationalist majority, or is equally poised.

And, its composition is also contingent on whether the UUP and the SDLP choose to take their ministerial seats around the Executive table, or instead either, or both, decide to exercise the Opposition option, a choice that may also confront the Alliance Party.

The final composition of the Executive, including the allocation of departments to the eligible parties, will not however become clear until the conclusion of inter-party negotiations scheduled to take place over a maximum period of 14 days after the election.

Those negotiations, designed to achieve an agreed Programme for Government (PfG) will, among other things, clarify which of the "red lines" drawn in advance by the parties have been written in indelible ink, or merely pencilled in.

Assuming that the eligible parties can accommodate one another's policy preferences, some of which are mutually contradictory, then it may lead to an uninterrupted period of stable devolved government: at the least, such an outcome will set an agreed course over the next five years. However, never discount the potential for that course to be derailed by events, not the least of which is the possibility of Brexit following the EU referendum in late June, just seven weeks after the Assembly election.

The implications of a vote to leave the EU, though welcome to the DUP, will be hugely disruptive for the governance of the UK and a major distraction for all political leaders, including in Northern Ireland.

The attendant economic and fiscal uncertainties of Brexit will extend long after the vote itself - certainly far longer than the formal two-year period provided for the disentangling of the UK's existing relationship with the EU - and as likely as not would inspire the SNP to press for a second independence referendum should the Scots vote emphatically in favour of remaining within the Union.

In turn that would frighten the unionist horses here, fearful anew about the prospective break-up of the Union.

For the time being this is to embark into the realm of speculation but, since this is a diverting pastime, let us speculate further.

The planned process of Executive formation and the task of agreeing a PfG outlined above assume that the DUP does emerge as the largest party with Arlene Foster at the helm, and is ready and willing to re-enter another power-sharing Executive.

But what if the prime position is secured by Sinn Fein and Martin McGuinness is poised to assume the role of First Minister? What then?

While Mr McGuinness has, as before, sought to cushion this prospective blow to unionist sensitivities by proposing that he and Mrs Foster be styled as joint First Ministers - a redesignation that, incidentally, is not in his gift - such an outcome appears unlikely. It would require a surge in support for Sinn Fein, inflicting serious if not terminal injury to the SDLP and a corresponding boost to the UUP's fortunes at the expense of the DUP, bolstered by a fraying of the latter's vote to the benefit of the TUV, Ukip and, perhaps, the PUP.

Though this scenario is extremely unlikely it isn't entirely unthinkable. So, if relegated to the runner-up spot, how would the DUP react? More to the point, how should it respond?

In such a context it would have two choices: on the one hand, be prepared to nominate Mrs Foster as Deputy First Minister.

On the other hand, refuse to nominate her or anyone else to that role.

To opt for the latter would risk toppling Northern Ireland into a major political crisis.

If, however, it decided to exercise the former option it would assure the restoration of devolution and, more significantly, signal its acceptance of the formal and co-equal nature of Executive leadership.

Judging by the DUP's rhetoric to date, however, accepting what it regards as the minor role is, it seems, a step too far for it to take.

Yet, in contemplating the alternative, its leadership should pause for very careful thought: party or country?

Dr Richard Wilford is Professor of Politics at Queen's University, Belfast

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