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Executive parties poles apart on snap election? Think again, they've already got it sewn up

Forget the sabre-rattling... both camps will be working behind the scenes to ensure it's business as usual on the Hill, writes Alex Kane

About a year ago Arlene Foster completed her remarkable journey from UUP defector (when she was regarded by many as a minor player on Jeffrey Donaldson's coat-tails) to DUP leader and First Minister.

She came to the top jobs with a reputation as a good departmental minister, a safe pair of hands, savvy with the media and, most important of all, someone who could take the DUP out of Peter Robinson's shadow while also attracting UUP supporters and new voters.

And after May's Assembly election - when the DUP crushed the challenge from unionist rivals, won an overall majority of the unionist vote and came within a few hundred votes of winning 40 seats - she was, to all intents and purposes, mistress of all she surveyed.

Today, she looks weak. Robin Newton, the DUP Speaker, looks like he will be forced from office. Jonathan Bell "tolled", and has done both her and the party great damage. DUP special advisers (Spads) appear to be a law unto themselves. She and her party are the butt of jokes and there is a level of public contempt and derision that I haven't seen for years.

Her reputation as a safe pair of hands and a good minister has been harmed; and she has displayed an aspect of her character that has surprised and concerned an audience that had generally been supportive of her up until that point.

The greatest problem she faces, though, is the monumental damage that the RHI saga (and let's not forget Charter NI, the failure to get to grips with paramilitarism and the huge financial problems with health, education and infrastructure) has done to the political institutions. To put it bluntly, the Government she leads appears to be at best incompetent, and at worst clinically inept and potentially corrupt. Adding to this shambles is the very real prospect of an early election.

Speaking last week, John O'Dowd said: "The loss of public confidence in the political institutions may require that event - an early election - to happen. That's the reality, that's the depth of the political crisis we are in. All options are on the table." Gerry Adams added: "The issue is not going to go away. The DUP should use the time over the Christmas period wisely and do the right thing."

Conor Murphy - the most likely successor to replace Martin McGuinness sometime soon - added fuel to the fire: "If this issue cannot resolve itself there is a possibility of a breakdown of the institutions, and we will face that. We are in the mode of working to resolve this issue of trying to get the DUP to see sense about holding people to account. But if the whole process breaks down, then inevitably it leads to an election."

When the Assembly returns in January Sinn Fein will table a motion calling for a public inquiry; steps to mitigate the RHI overspend and requiring Foster to stand aside until the inquiry is completed - a process that could take months. As it stands, although everything could change in the next three weeks, it seems likely that every MLA, other than the DUP, would support the motion. If Foster - who will deploy a petition of concern - fails to comply, then Sinn Fein will withdraw from the Executive.

Sinn Fein doesn't fear an early election. This is quite clearly a mess of the DUP's own creation and the DUP is acutely aware of the damage that has been done to Foster. Also, Sinn Fein knows that the SDLP will find it very difficult to gain electoral traction from the situation since most of the damage inflicted on the DUP has come from the BBC and a handful of print journalists, rather than from the official Opposition.

Indeed, it's possible that Sinn Fein could improve at the SDLP's expense, even though it knows that eclipsing the DUP is very unlikely.

An early election could also provide a very convenient exit strategy for McGuinness; because it's an open secret that what Sinn Fein refers to as a "leadership transition process" is now well under way.

But what of the DUP? Does it fear an early election? Well, it would certainly be an embarrassment for it, particularly since it would be viewed as having been forced upon the party by its own incompetence - something Mike Nesbitt, Colum Eastwood and Jim Allister would remind it of at every opportunity.

It would also be very difficult for Foster to play the 'Back Arlene to stop McGuinness' card again; although it would be interesting, given the issue of McGuinness's health, to see if the DUP would be tempted to add Gerry Kelly or Caral Ni Chuilin (both of whom spook mainstream unionism) to the bogeyman mix. Mind you, an early election, with the DUP returned as top dog, would also kill off the RHI story - which would help the DUP.

What will also help the DUP - and it will have done the sums - is the fact that the election will see the reduction of MLA numbers from 108 to 90, allowing potential losses to be cushioned. The reduction - unless there really is a collapse of catastrophic proportions for the DUP - also makes life more difficult for the UUP. Nesbitt did much worse than expected at the last Assembly election (the UUP's worst-ever) and, even with the DUP's present predicament, it looks as though he would struggle to hold seats, let alone make modest gains.

And, as I noted earlier, because most of the damage to the DUP has come from the media rather than the UUP and SDLP, Nesbitt and Eastwood will struggle to explain their relevance. But if it held its own, along with Alliance, it would be interesting to see if it would opt for the Executive this time, rather than return to an Opposition role that doesn't seem to be paying dividends.

It seems unlikely that an early election would inflict a particularly damaging, let alone fatal blow, to the DUP.

And it seems equally likely that the DUP and Sinn Fein would be returned with the same balance they have at the moment.

The only thing that might change is that the UUP and SDLP would, if they hold their present share of the vote, be back in the Executive.

All of which suggests that Sinn Fein may be applying pressure to the DUP in the hope of extracting some concessions from it in other areas. That's a dangerous game to play if the consequence is an election that leaves it in much the same position it is now. So we have to assume that both parties will be working together in the run-up to the Assembly's new session for something resembling a coat of paint on the Fresh Start Agreement.

One thing is certain, though: the non-aggression pact is over. We're back to the battle-a-day stuff and undisguised contempt for each other. Happy New Year.

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