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Big beasts prepare to battle it out in the survival of the fittest

By Ed Curran

It's nearly hibernation time for the folks on the hill at Stormont.

Some can be spotted digging their trenches already, scurrying for the cover of their prejudices and even pretending that they did not spend many relatively happy hours in one another's company. Now they want to be seen as separate species of mankind.

No David Attenborough documentary is required. This strange instinctive behaviour may be a mystery to the outside world. It is not to us who live here.

We know that just as a full moon is reputed to drive some people to the point of madness, so the prospect of an election prompts even more terrifying mood-swings with many of our politicians.

We are now entering that phase. Signs of trench-building are appearing everywhere, most obviously where the species known as Democratic Unionism exists in large numbers. We can see its antennae twitching.

This is a sure signal that it feels threatened by another wilder species which observers have identified as 'Traditional Tyrannosaunus Unionism', code-named TUV. It is only a matter of time before the two species engage one another in a desperate battle for their very existence. No one can be sure how many will survive.

Unfortunately for us all, this experience is not drawn on some remote jungle landscape. We will encounter it on our doorstep in the weeks and months ahead. A general election beckons and the folks on the hill have turned their thoughts to self-preservation - even though that might mean no Stormont Executive at all.

Stormont is reaching another crunch time over arguably the thorniest most cantankerous issue - policing and administering justice in a society which remains deeply divided. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness warns of dire consequences if a date for the transfer of powers is not agreed before Christmas.

The other main player in the Executive, Peter Robinson and his DUP, are running scared of the electoral consequences of agreeing too much, too soon because they fear there may be more votes to be lost than won in the unionist community.

The more nationalists bang on about needing the transfer now, the more unionists become suspicious and reticent. No matter how illogical or regrettable that may be, it is the way Northern Ireland politics works.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP complain that the First Minister is looking over his shoulder too frequently at the Traditional Unionist Voice of Jim Allister. Many may well fear that, just as the British National Party has risen across the water, so the Traditional Unionist Voice of Jim Allister will do here.

Both have arrived on the political scene at a particularly convenient time to pick up the votes of the disaffected and disillusioned, of which there appears no shortage in the unionist community, or among the white inhabitants of inner-city Britain.

The MPs' expenses scandal has discredited established political parties in Britain and damaged the democratic process.

In Northern Ireland, the Stormont Executive is viewed in a similar light. The public are unimpressed by the failure to agree on important issues such as education, the lack of inertia in the Executive and the expense of maintaining so many MLAs.

We expected so much more. Instead we were given so much less.

The impotent Stormont Executive has proved to date to be a poor advertisement for democracy at work. That has led to much public criticism and could trigger a wider political apathy. This is an alarming situation with an election just around the corner and the TUV waiting in the wings. It was a British general election in the spring of 1974 which sealed the fate of the first Stormont power-sharing executive. Might history repeat itself in 2010?

Now a new potentially explosive element is about to enter Stormont - policing and justice.

If Caitriona Ruane, to name but one Executive minister, can cock a snoop at the other parties who disagree fundamentally with her, what of a new policing and justice minister, expected to be the Alliance leader David Ford?

Will he be his own man in the new job as she remains her own woman in Education? Or will he be a puppet minister to the DUP and Sinn Fein? Time and events will tell.

Imagine this scenario. An Orange parade plans a contentious march in 2010 close to or through a nationalist neighbourhood. The DUP and Sinn Fein are at loggerheads over whether it should go ahead or not. The Parades Commission, if actually in existence, rules against the march.

The Executive's policing and justice minister finds himself in the hot seat caught between strongly conflicting opinions. Where does he stand and what does he say? I'm not sure how this scenario would pan out, or whether it can actually be made to work.

If the two main parties at Stormont could not agree on either of them taking responsibility for policing and justice until 2012, what hope has an Alliance minister of doing the job effectively and decisively until then?

I hope whoever takes the job does manage to negotiate the minefield ahead, but on the experience of the Executive so far, we are entitled to have our doubts. Mr Robinson is right to ensure that every I is dotted and every T crossed. Even without the policing and justice challenge, he faces an uphill task convincing many in the unionist community that the Stormont Executive and Assembly have proved their worth.

The next few weeks look crucial as the parties retreat to their pre-election trenches and even more inertia sets in at Stormont.

At worst the Executive could fall. At best we can expect little or no agreement on anything of substance until the polling stations close sometime next spring.

We are far from being out of the woods yet.

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