Belfast Telegraph

DUP's vulnerability may leave them exposed at ballot box in Northern Ireland election

By Jon Tonge

"It's not about the money... forget about the price tag", boldly sang Jessie J, not too many years ago.

And at one level, the idea of Stormont falling amid a row about a mere £500m is absurd.

The sum - at the top end of the fiasco range - amounts to about £20 per year per Northern Ireland elector over the next two decades.

The largest IRA bombs of the 1990s did more financial damage in a couple of seconds, in an era when Sinn Fein appeared somewhat less touchingly concerned with fiscal rectitude.

This is not to say that the arguments involved in the downing of Stormont are trivial. They raise important questions of ministerial accountability, equality, the value of elections and the viability of political institutions in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein's anger is not synthetic. The points concerning the DUP's need to treat republicans as genuine co-equals in Government were well made in Martin McGuinness's resignation letter on Monday. Sinn Fein's leadership has had to stretch its base on numerous occasions since 1998 and reciprocation has not always been charitable.

Nationalist frustrations have been mounting for years.

So yes, attitudinal change is certainly needed.

In terms of the institutions, however, a sweeping review and reform is needed.

One-party control of individual ministries needs to be diluted in favour of co-governance, helping the development of a joined-up Executive, governing as equals. Better accountability can come via a properly funded Opposition and a revamped, more powerful committee system.

These reforms are what matters. Genuine accountability and serious scrutiny does not depend on the immediate fall of a minister, prior to an investigation. Arlene Foster has a clear and difficult case to answer regarding what went on in her ministry. Yet an initial presumption of innocence is not a bad way to proceed.

Provided Foster had no say whatsoever in shaping the nature and personnel of the investigation, an after-report resignation could still have rightly been demanded if the verdict was damning, rather than her walking the plank before the trial.

Short of a most unlikely Brokenshire-inspired miracle, the baloney show in town moves on to a phantom election that no one really wants to an Assembly that does not really exist.

Welcome back to November 2003 everyone.

It took three-and-a-half years after that contest to restore devolved Government.

At least the whole sorry saga has ended the conceit that Northern Ireland's political process is a model one, envied around the world.

The Assembly has been mothballed for a total of 1,650 days between 1999 and 2017.

Arguably its main achievement has been just to survive.

An unedifying election can be expected. Some have taken solace in the fact that it has been triggered by an ostensibly non-conflict issue, even if McGuinness's letter did rather broaden the battlefield.

There is the possibility this time that cross-community voting - engaged in by less than 10% of voters - may increase, but if I had received money for every time I've been told that an election since 1998 would be based on 'bread-and-butter' issues I might not be needing to supplement my meagre professorial income with articles like this.

The fact remains that the link between religious affiliation (or communal background) and party support remains the strongest anywhere in Europe - and that won't change in March.

This is not to loftily accuse the electorate of being sectarian dinosaurs.

Social issues have received a significant airing in recent contests and the RHI scandal will figure in voting calculations - but mainly in terms of choice within the two main blocs.

Many of those eschewing unionist and nationalist labels - especially young people - won't be making the journey to the polling station.

The DUP has most to lose in an election. Electoral losses to the UUP and, as an outside bet, the TUV (although there is no one remotely of Jim Allister's calibre to stand) are possible and the reduction in Assembly size threatens the figure of 30 needed for the party's all-important Petition of Concern.

That would surely be the end of Arlene Foster regardless of any RHI investigation.

A DUP loss of leading party status to Sinn Fein would palpably be terminal. Only one in 20 unionist voters would have to switch away from the DUP, if Sinn Fein captured the voters of an extra one in 25 nationalists.

Yet Sinn Fein's performance in 2016 was the first backward step the party has taken since the Good Friday Agreement and anger over RHI is not guaranteed to reinvigorate.

Analysing the outcomes in constituencies as they are pruned to five MLAs each is a potential egg-on-face exercise, but the DUP looks vulnerable in South Antrim, Lagan Valley and East and South Belfast.

DUP demises have been wrongly predicted in the past, though, and the party possesses expert vote managers. Sinn Fein might struggle in East Antrim but might just be immune from the pruning elsewhere.

So if, as seems very probable, the DUP and Sinn Fein are returned as their respective community leaders, talks begin on a Programme for Government.

Without serious attitudinal change, what, exactly, will be different? The election will not have solved anything RHI-wise. It could possibly delay the much-needed inquiry. Could the phrase 'direct rule minister James Brokenshire' become common currency?

Meanwhile, Brexit continues apace, without any costings, input or influence from Northern Ireland's ghost Government.

There are some things, to return to Jessie J, you simply cannot put a price on…

Jon Tonge is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author (with Maire Braniff, Tom Hennessey, Jim McAuley and Sophie Whiting) of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power. The same team is currently writing a book on the Ulster Unionist Party

The number of days the Northern Ireland Assembly has been mothballed for in its various guises between 1999 and 2017

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