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Such is the cynicism, most couldn't care less if lights never go back on at Stormont

By Suzanne Breen

It's entirely befitting that Stormont is ending not with a bang but a whimper. The lights were still burning in Parliament Buildings last night as MLAs continued squabbling after darkness fell.

There was no big dramatic finale to the events that have brought devolution to its knees. The Assembly will limp on for another eight days until it is finally put out of its misery.

And if neither it nor the Executive are restored, who cares? Once we railed against direct rule by indifferent English overlords. It was accepted wisdom that our own politicians, from whichever side of the divide, would do a far better job.

Who could say that now? Both unionists, with their tradition of devotion to Stormont, and nationalists with their history of distrust, today stand united in disgust with how things have worked out.

While the future of Stormont's institutions is debated to death by the political and media establishment, most ordinary people couldn't give two hoots.

Cancer waiting lists are at an all-time high. Every health trust has missed its target.

The queues and chaos in our A&E departments means that people are terrified of suddenly falling sick.

The predicted post-peace economic boom never happened. It was mostly call centre and other low-wage jobs that came. The average household here has £14,645 to save or spend - £3,000 behind the UK national average.

More: DUP never agreed to Irish language act at St Andrews, says Edwin Poots

Belfast may look a lot better to visitors nowadays, but it's a tale of two cities. Beyond the fancy bars and restaurants with their £80 a head tasting menus, families are struggling to survive.

Such hope abounded when the institutions were set up in 1998. What has followed since the Good Friday Agreement hasn't been an anti-climax, it's been an outright embarrassment.

Yes, Stormont has delivered.

For reputed paramilitary bosses like Dee Stitt on their £35,000 a year jobs courtesy of the Social Investment Fund. For MLAs, special advisers, and the long list of other hangers-on.

And for the middle-class consultants, lobbyists, and other 'civil society' creatures with their inflated egos and pay packets who for some reason are elevated to almost sacred status here.

But for the average person in Ballymurphy or Ballybeen, with neither paramilitary nor political connections, Stormont has delivered nothing.

The great and the good berate the London and Dublin Governments for taking their eye off the ball. Do you know what? They don't care and, from their viewpoint, why should they?

They're too engrossed with Brexit and their own problems. So long as the war is over and we're not acting in any way destabilising their day-to-day existence, they will leave us to fester in our own mess.

Expect Sinn Fein and the DUP to get down and dirty during the election campaign despite the fact that, just six weeks ago, they were insisting everything was hunky-dory between them in a joint love letter published in local newspapers. This election certainly won't be boring with potential high-profile casualties such as Education Minister Peter Weir, Justice Minister Claire Sugden and Assembly Speaker Robin Newton.

People Before Profit's Eamonn McCann and the Greens' Clare Bailey will also be fighting for their political lives.

The SDLP is in serious trouble in several constituencies with Alex Attwood, Richie McPhillips and Nichola Mallon under threat. It's almost impossible to see the Lazarus-like Attwood, who has survived so many near-electoral death experiences, coming through this one.

There is immense pressure on Colum Eastwood's young shoulders to perform strongly during the campaign and not let his vulnerable colleagues down.

Every point he makes about how the SDLP took a tough line with the DUP, while the Shinners cosied up in bed with it, is correct. But Sinn Fein's trump card is that it brought down the Executive.

The March 2 election occurs just a day after the anniversary of the start of the 1981 hunger strike. Sinn Fein is guaranteed to use that in what will be an exceedingly emotional campaign.

It's already posting photos on social media of Gerry Adams and Alex Maskey standing up to riot police during a past confrontation between the security forces and nationalist residents.

That's a tad disingenuous given that nowadays the Shinners in Ardoyne are constructively helping the PSNI get controversial marches through.

But, hey ho, anything goes in an election campaign.

Martin McGuinness will be deciding whether or not to run again.

He has never been more popular in the broad nationalist community.

A very frail and unwell former Deputy First Minister would be a powerful visual image for Sinn Fein. But he may well decide that he needs to fight his illness away from the public spotlight.

Of all our political leaders, Arlene Foster is undoubtedly under the greatest strain in this election. So could an East Belfast 2012 moment be repeated with Mrs Foster punished by an angry local electorate and losing her seat?

Until now she has been loved in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and there is as yet no sign that has changed. She will surely be allocated a heftier chunk of the constituency than her running-mate to ensure plain sailing.

And the Ulster Unionists lack a popular heavy-hitter - such as a local, high-profile Orangeman - with whom to challenge her.

Since the 'cash for ash' scandal broke, Mrs Foster has engaged in an act of self-combustion with one woeful decision after another.

During the election campaign expect to see a more humble Foster with photos flooding the mainstream and social media of her out and about meeting the grassroots.

The party will work hard to keep her away from any awkward voices she may encounter. The DUP leader being heckled by ordinary unionists is an image they will want to avoid at all costs.

The UUP has some strong local candidates like Jo-Anne Dobson and Doug Beattie, widely regarded as decent, hardworking politicians never troubled by any scandal allegations.

But the party as a whole needs to come over as less middle-class, and more grassroots unionist, if it's to take advantage of the DUP's shambles.

In this election, I suspect that the televised leadership debates will be far more important than before. Mrs Foster will be grateful that the TUV's status as a minor party will mean Jim Allister's absence.

Yet she will not be looking forward to facing Mike Nesbitt or Naomi Long who are both, in different ways, first-class performers. But, most of all, the DUP needs to put to bed the 'cash for ash' story.

The party is currently on the ropes. Any more revelations would almost certainly guarantee an unprecedented pummelling from the public.

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