Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Playing politics with an election in mind

As the deadline draws close for the UDA to disarm or forfeit its £1.2m teaser, Chris Thornton assesses the impact a general election may have

The UDA have just about a week to give up their guns or see their favourite fund, the Conflict Transformation Initiative, take a bullet.

Neither outcome - the surrender of guns or the loss of the £1.2m fund - is particularly pleasing for UDA-type loyalists. But neither one is particularly bad for the Minister who imposed the deadline.

If the UDA give up their guns, it's Margaret Ritchie who forced their hand. Or if she cuts off the fund - as currently seems more likely - she is standing tough in the face of loyalist intransigence. Ms Ritchie could argue she didn't pick this fight, but she certainly chose the time to bring it to a climax. Why, back at the start of August, did she give the UDA 60 days to start decommissioning? There may be a lot of good reasons for that timespan, but it didn't escape political notice at the time that her deadline fell smack into the timeframe for a potential general election.

Long before the English conference season, election fever was starting to infect local politics. Indeed it may be one of the foundation stones for the current Executive: at least a third of the Ministers around the Northern Ireland cabinet table can count their party's interests at election time as one of the factors in their selection.

Ms Ritchie is among them. Her party leader, Mark Durkan, selected her as the Social Development Minister with at least some consideration of her potential as a parliamentary candidate in South Down. The same applies to her likely rival, Sinn Fein's Education Minister Caitriona Ruane, and Ms Ruane's party Agriculture colleague Michelle Gildernew. And her rival for the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat, DUP Environment Minister Arlene Foster. As well as Health Minister Michael McGimpsey, who stood in South Belfast.

It goes without saying - but we'll say it anyway to save their solicitors time writing letters - that each of these Ministers is undoubtedly well qualified for their Executive positions in their own right. But it's also true that their party leaders have an eye on raising their profiles before voters return to the polls.

An election may also factor into the thinking of others on the fringes of the political stage. If an election is coming, classroom assistants have certainly picked a good time to put pressure on Ms Ruane for a pay rise.

Although it could come too soon for some - there is informed speculation that sitting South Down MP Eddie McGrady will stand again if an election looms, which would obliterate Ms Ritchie's chances this time and seriously dent Ms Ruane's.

But there is no question that an election battle would have a profound effect on the fledgling Assembly. At its most basic level, fewer members will be showing up for Stormont's debates and committee meetings if they're out working the doorsteps.

And there is the question of whether the Assembly could be used as a campaign platform - either through politically motivated motions for debate or contentious attacks in the chamber or committee rooms.

There are no guidelines here. An Assembly statement says there "is nothing to prevent motions being tabled on issues which may be live during any General Election", although they must comply with standing orders and get past the Business Committee.

It's what happens at the Executive level that could be particularly interesting. Westminster will observe a purdah - the convention cloaking politically contentious issues that emerge during an election campaign - but that may not necessarily apply to the Executive. Certainly Peter Robinson won't postpone his budget because of an election - although he may hesitate over how austere he can be.

Even though devolution makes Northern Ireland even more obscure at Westminster, general elections still matter here: not least because parties fighting for power in the local administration can't ignore a popularity contest run in the same constituencies. Fianna Fail take note: if you want to become a player at Stormont, you'll have to make your pitch for the British Parliament as well.

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