Belfast Telegraph

A week in politics: Sinn Fein and SDLP electoral pacts, reducing the size of the Assembly and Westminster elections

By Will Chambre

When it comes to politics in Northern Ireland you never need to go far to get a sound bite, and the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness produced the proverbial cracker when he described potential pacts in unionism as "an anti-agreement axis".

This gem came as Sinn Fein were asking the SDLP to step aside in key seats, notably in Fermanagh South Tyrone. During the last Westminster election, the Sinn Fein candidate Michelle Gildernew, won by just four votes.

She did this, of course, against a unionist unity candidate; an idea once again being floated by the members of Mr McGuinness's "anti-agreement axis", as unionists try to decide on a way forward in target constituencies.

The SDLP quickly rebuffed the offer of a pact of "pro-agreement progressive" parties. With no specifics on offer and making the offer via the media, this was perhaps inevitable; although if south Belfast was thrown into the equation to keep party leader Alasdair McDonnell's seat safe then they may be tempted into some horse trading.

All this is against a backdrop of the 'talks', which are encompassing everything that someone, somewhere finds contentious...

Secretary of state, Theresa Villiers, said that the pace of these massive agenda talks was increasing, as the Northern Ireland Office tries to inject some urgency into proceedings, which has been focussing on welfare reform.

At the same time there has been murmurings about cutting the size of the Assembly and the number of government departments.

This is an attractive proposition to both the DUP and Sinn Fein, as fewer seats would squeeze out a number of UUP, SDLP and Alliance MLAs as well as neutering some of the smaller parties in the polls.

But, whether this is something that can in reality take place is another matter: however, it also makes Sinn Fein and the DUP seem as if they are wanting to be sensible by reducing the number of MLAs against a backdrop of public cynicism and voter apathy.

Yes, while the talks are ongoing we are seeing the opening salvoes in the Westminster election campaign beginning to take shape.

While pressing matters are before the Assembly, such as the Education Bill and the budget, parties are already jockeying and jostling for position....it's not even Christmas and the vote doesn't take place until May next year.

Thus the political malaise felt by the voting public seems to have gone unnoticed by those in the Stormont bubble; cocooned in a world where political advantage is seen as something to try for at every opportunity.

Judging by the reaction on radio phone-ins, politicians are now staple fare for comedians to such an extent that their scripts almost write themselves.

Now would be a good time for MLAs to reveal the fact that they are actually doing some work for the public good.

This was echoed by First Minister, Peter Robinson, in an interview when he acknowledged the media preferred a political scrap as opposed to covering the work done in committees and the occasions when all sides agreed a way forward on legislation.

In other words, it could be said that the MLAs and parties have placed themselves in a position whereby the more they scrap the less likely they are to get coverage of the positive things they are doing.

It is debatable whether there will be a party brave enough to cut through this Gordian Knot, but in the meantime the looming cuts in public services will keep everyone complaining and blaming each other in the run-up to May's poll.

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