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Northern Ireland election countdown: Will it be a day of anger or apathy?

RHI, unionist transfers, orange versus green... tomorrow voters could vent their fury at the state of politics, or be so fed up they’ll stay at home in droves

By Edmund Curran

Few, if any, unionist leaders have faced such opprobrium in so short a time. Certainly, none has gone from being so popular to being so criticised as Foster in the past three months.

Her public persona has revealed a side to her character some of her admirers had not seen before. Her softer edges have suddenly hardened.

Since the revelations of the RHI scandal her tone has become more harsh and dismissive of critics.

The relaxed, smiling, homely image of Northern Ireland's first female First Minister has given way to a steely, uncompromising manner in media interviews.

For better or worse, Foster appears to have chosen attack as the best means of defence against those who dare to question her leadership.

"Arrogance" and "evasiveness" are words which do not rest easily with the image of a political party priding itself for its Christian values, but that is how the DUP comes across.

We will know when the votes are counted if such criticism has led to a reversal of fortunes for the Ulster Unionists, and whether the spectre of an unworkable Executive leads more people to support the SDLP, Alliance and others.

A measure of how far the Ulster Unionists and SDLP have to travel can be seen in the high level of support each party enjoyed 20 years ago.

In 1998 the SDLP, led by John Hume, actually topped the first Assembly election poll with 177,000 votes - just pipping the Ulster Unionists with 172,000 votes.

Last year the SDLP had only 83,000 votes, while the Ulster Unionists attracted 87,000. Clearly, the lost voters of Ulster are overwhelmingly former Ulster Unionist and SDLP supporters.

At best, the two parties will hope to see a trend emerging in this election that promises a return to their good old days.

At worst, a no-change 2017 vote would consign both to the wilderness of a weak opposition.

Tomorrow, the electorate of Northern Ireland will have its say. With Foster embroiled in the RHI scandal, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt (below) could not have a better opportunity to regain some lost ground.

Many have argued that he didn't have to do it, but he did - recommend that unionist voters in his home constituency of East Belfast give their second preferences to the SDLP. Horror of horrors - vote unionist and then vote nationalist?

Nesbitt's bolt of lightning has crashed without warning into the body politic of unionism. His action raises the question: is he guilty of political naivety? Has he delivered the smelling salts just when Foster was on the ropes and in danger of being counted out?

We will know on Friday, but Nesbitt's party colleagues are hardly jumping up and down with delight at his electoral advice, while the DUP is far from displeased.

Northern Ireland's electorate has grown significantly in the two decades since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Compared to 1998, when the historic agreement was passed by referendum, the number of people eligible to vote in 2017 has increased by more than 100,000.

Yet, though more people are on the voting register than ever before, fewer are actually going to the polls, unionist and nationalist alike.

For example, the unionist votes cast in 1998 for the first Stormont Assembly totalled 410,000.

In 2016, when the DUP under its new leader Foster eclipsed the other parties, the votes cast for all the various strands of unionists amounted to only 332,000.

The decline in unionist voting patterns is mirrored in the nationalist community. In 1998, 323,000 people voted for the SDLP, Sinn Fein and fringe parties. Last year that figure had declined to 264,000.

All sorts of reasons are postulated for this major drop in voting habits, which has led to 78,000 fewer unionist votes and 59,000 fewer nationalist votes in less than 20 years.

Perhaps the power-sharing Executive provided such sufficient comfort for unionists and nationalists alike that an increasing number have not felt the same need to worry about the constitutional issue and, as a consequence, to exercise their right to vote in recent elections.

Or, conversely, the constant crises and controversies at Stormont have persuaded more and more people to question whether devolution is worth voting for, and many have decided to stay at home on polling days.

Whatever the underlying reasons, the decline in voting habits in Northern Ireland can be summed up in two stark statistics - a drop of 137,000 unionist and nationalist voters since 1998 despite an increase of 100,000 voters on the register over the same period.

Added together, these figures represent a huge appetite for political apathy among today's electorate - extremely cold comfort for supporters of devolution.

Now the RHI issue presents a new imponderable. What - if any - impact will the scandal have on voters? Of course, until the votes are cast and counted, no one can be sure, but any one of three scenarios is possible.

The first is that nothing really changes and the parties are returned to Stormont with proportionately the same percentage of first preference votes and MLA seats as they had before. The second is that RHI and the breakdown of power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Fein will prompt apathetic voters, of which Northern Ireland has almost 600,000, to emerge from their political slumber and cause a shock of Donald Trump proportions.

The third possibility is that potential voters are even more disillusioned with devolution and the turnout tomorrow will be perilously close to - or even below - 50%.

The candidates on their campaign trails should have a sense already of which way the political wind is blowing.

The message they are hearing from the doorsteps is confused between people so annoyed about Stormont that they cannot wait to exercise their vote, and others who are asking what's the point and say they will boycott the polls. If the comments on phone-ins and in street polls can be taken at face value, there is a high probability that one group will cancel out the other. That being the case, the next Stormont Assembly would look much like the last one.

Although the RHI debacle is clearly one of the key factors in the breakdown of the old Assembly, voters will have to make up their own minds and arrive at their own judgments on who was ultimately responsible for the potential loss of nearly half-a-billion pounds.

Will Foster or her party pay a price at the polls, or will voters postpone any judgment and leave the apportioning of blame to the good offices of Sir Patrick Coghlin's inquiry?

At this stage voters have no conclusions, no answers with which to guide their instincts tomorrow.

Instead, people can only make up their own minds on a number of key questions, all of which Sir Patrick will be expected to answer in his report many months after this week's polling.

The most worrying issue for Foster and the DUP is surely the extent or otherwise to which voters hold her or her party accountable for the potential loss of so much public money.

The case for and against hangs on Foster's definition of ministerial responsibility.

On the one hand, she emphatically asserts that she did no wrong. On the other, she accepts, to quote her words to the Assembly in December, that the initial scheme "did not contain costs control measures and there were fundamental flaws in its design. This is the deepest political regret of my time in this House".

Given such an admission, where does ministerial responsibility begin and end?

In the absence of Sir Patrick Coghlin's answer to this crucial question, voters will have to decide for themselves.

Foster appears to draw a fine distinction between her ministerial responsibility at the Department of Energy, Trade and Investment until 2015 and what she herself described as "the shocking errors and failures in the RHI scheme and a catalogue of mistakes, all of which coincided to create the perfect storm".

Which officials were responsible? Who took the catastrophic decision to alter the Northern Ireland scheme and approve a tariff which was so financially untenable? Why was the scheme so poorly monitored? Why were reviews not put in place and why did Foster not know what was happening, with such calamitous consequences for the public purse?

When all is said and done in his public inquiry, will Sir Patrick exonerate the DUP leader and accept her interpretation of her ministerial role and responsibilities?

Unfortunately, Sir Patrick can offer no definitive answers to guide voters tomorrow. If this were Britain, or indeed any other Western democracy, it would be difficult for any political leader or party to escape unscathed from such a raging public controversy as RHI has proved to be. However, the politics of Northern Ireland has set it apart from everywhere else for generations.

Normal rules, as we have seen frequently in the workings of Stormont, do not always apply. The electorate can be swayed easily by the fear factor of the other side gaining any advantage and, once again, those are the tactics of Foster and her party.

To what extent voters will be distracted from all their concerns over RHI, not to mention the health service, by the age-old battle of orange versus green?

To what extent will the entrenched politics of west Ulster - Foster from Fermanagh and Sinn Fein's new leader Michelle O'Neill from adjoining Tyrone - influence the rest of Northern Ireland, as has happened so often in the past?

Or will March 2, 2017, mark a turning point for more moderate voices?

The bookmakers and the history books tell us the odds are stacked against any sea-change in political attitudes despite the undoubted reverberations of the RHI scandal.

The rural backgrounds of Foster and O'Neill bring to mind the oft-quoted words of Winston Churchill after the First World War: "As the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world."

Foster from Fermanagh and O'Neill from Tyrone appear intent on proving that Churchill's words remain as relevant in 2017 as almost a century ago.

Most likely they will.

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