Why 'Vote Mike and you get Colum' is starting to sound like a good idea
The UUP and SDLP leaders are mutually respectful. And, let's face it, could they be any worse than Arlene and Martin, asks Alex Kane
May 5, 2016 was a very good day for the DUP and Arlene Foster. The 202,567 votes they polled in the Assembly election was their best tally since 2007: 115,265 more votes than the UUP; a very comfortable overall majority of all unionist votes cast and 31,601 more votes than the UUP and SDLP combined. And with Sinn Fein having dropped 11,000 votes and one MLA and the UUP and SDLP shuffled into Opposition, Foster seemed to be mistress of all she surveyed.
It had been a dreadful day for the UUP. Mike Nesbitt's "two election cycles" strategy had crashed to the ground at the end of the first cycle, with the UUP recording their worst-ever election result. Meanwhile, the "youthful and energetic" Colum Eastwood also delivered the SDLP's worst Assembly result, dropping 11,000 votes and two MLAs.
Yet, just eight months later, Foster is in trouble. The Executive has crashed, forcing an early election. Her own ministerial competence, along with the competence of other DUP figures and special advisers, has been under intense, relentless scrutiny since BBC NI's Spotlight programme on December 6.
The much-trumpeted "good working relationship" and "non-aggression pact" between the DUP and Sinn Fein has been shredded; with the boastful claims contained in a recent joint statement by Foster and McGuinness now looking like a deliberate ploy to pull the wool over the eyes of the media and general public. Senior figures in both parties freely admit that they would be very hard-pushed - assuming, of course, that they are returned as the lead parties - to put all of the pieces back together again and reboot a new Executive.
Does that mean that there is an opportunity for Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood to reverse the fortunes of last May and convince the electorate that they can succeed where the DUP and Sinn Fein have failed?
The strongest card they have in their favour is that the failure of the DUP and Sinn Fein has been so spectacular and so public.
Let's face it: neither Foster nor McGuinness could even put up the pretence of being able to work together after an election. Foster has admitted that this is going to be a "brutal" showdown. Sinn Fein says there will be "no return to the status quo".
So, Nesbitt and Eastwood are right to argue that "returning those two parties to power" will probably result in continuing stalemate and instability.
While it is true that mandatory coalition forces unlikely partners into government together, it is also true that personal respect and general civility would be a useful underpinning for such a coalition.
All of the body language and anecdotal evidence suggests that Nesbitt and Eastwood like each other and UUP/SDLP MLAs clearly have a very good relationship. Yes, they obviously disagree on "big ticket" issues, like legacy and the constitutional position, yet the fact that there is civility and respect at the heart of their relationship may mean that they can reach broad-based agreement on a range of other issues.
To be blunt: could they be any worse than the other two?
Many DUP MLAs make no secret of the fact that they detest Sinn Fein; while Sinn Fein MLAs have told me, "there's no love lost between us".
There are two primary sources for the UUP/SDLP to attract votes. The first, obviously, is from people who voted DUP and Sinn Fein last May. That's a difficult task, because many of those voters are voting DUP to stop Sinn Fein, and vice versa. That's why the DUP has played the "Vote DUP to stop a Sinn Fein First Minister" card since 2007: and, so far, it has worked. It is still their most powerful card and it will still secure a huge chunk of their vote on March 2.
Sinn Fein, meanwhile, will talk about unionist splits, DUP "arrogance and lack of respect" and argue that, with increased votes and the DUP in trouble, this will be their best chance to get the First Minister's role. That hope will fuel a huge chunk of their vote.
The other source for the UUP/SDLP is non-voters - people who, for years in some cases, have argued that a vote is a waste of time. Many of those people may be angry with the RHI saga; and similarly angry that, yet again, Northern Ireland looks downright stupid to the rest of the world.
But if a big enough chunk of those non-voters (who make up around 45% of the potential electorate) is to be motivated and mobilised to vote this time, then they need three guarantees: their vote will result in change; the institutions will survive and be effective; and, most important of all, that Nesbitt and Eastwood are genuine in their commitment to work together.
And that's going to mean that Nesbitt and Eastwood approach this election challenge jointly, from the same standpoint and with a clear agreement on a common outcome.
If their main pitch is that they, together, would do a better job than the DUP and Sinn Fein, then they need to provide hard evidence of that during the election campaign.
Political opponents may have mocked the cheesiness of "Vote Mike and you get Colum", ignoring the reality that the last outcome gave us Arlene and Martin followed, eight months later, by tears, tantrums, crash and uncertainty.
The DUP/Sinn Fein campaign will be nasty, negative and relentlessly playing to their separate bases: so it makes sense for the UUP/SDLP campaign to be positive, pleasant and geared to the needs of each other for transfer purposes.
They also need to focus on the fact that their campaign is about good government, proper accountability and a coherent, collective approach at the heart of the Executive.
Be willing to admit that they won't always agree, while confirming that Mike and Colum will be able to sit, chat and work out a compromise which both will stand over.
They also need to address the concerns that Sinn Fein and the DUP still have about the outworkings - and ongoing failure to implement key aspects - of the Good Friday Agreement and St Andrew's Agreement. Those concerns aren't going to go away - even if the UUP/SDLP eclipse their rivals.
Neither Nesbitt nor Eastwood expected this second pick of the cherry so soon, or in these sorts of circumstances.
There is a political/electoral opportunity now, which they never anticipated. If they don't seize it, capitalise on it and successfully rebuild on it, then they could, conceivably, end up in a worse electoral state than they did last May.
If they are serious about change, they need to convince tens of thousands of sceptical voters that they have a credible strategy for delivering it.