Belfast Telegraph

Likely election outcome is similar DUP numbers and more Sinn Fein MPs

By Jon Tonge

So what will happen at the most important election since the one, er, three months ago? - and does it matter? As election campaigning resumes after the utter horror of Manchester, can we merely expect yet more re-runs of the arguments which produced such a dramatic outcome in March?

The grandstanding from the main parties ought to be greeted with scepticism. Much changed at the Assembly election and the DUP campaign this time is more circumspect. Crocodiles, Poles, and now blondes are all off the script. It's back to a straightforward defence of the Union and bolstering of the unionist vote.

Part of the reason for the changed tone is that a deal with Sinn Fein on an Irish Language Act is all but done. The act may not have that title, but it will have that content. Various sweeteners for cultural unionists in terms of Orange, Ulster-Scots and other aspects of unionist identity will be present to sugar the deal for the DUP bases.

It's not Sinn Fein who are now the possible deal-breakers.

It's much more a case of having to sell the act to recalcitrant DUP elected representatives, needing to revise their scripts on why there would never be such legislation.

The deal might have been announced by now, had a general election not been called. At that point, it was back to the trenches. The DUP can expect a reasonable election, but success will not be built upon generous provision for the Irish language.

Similarly, an agreed approach to managing Brexit - disagreeing Brexit but mitigating it as an Executive - was within reach of the DUP and Sinn Fein. Obviously the two main parties are far apart on Brexit, as are their bases. Seventy per cent of DUP referendum voters backed leaving the EU; 85% of Sinn Fein voters opposed departure. However, there was a basis of agreement.

This would respect the polarity of opinion on Brexit, but acknowledge the need to work together to minimise the border and in effect achieve some form of special status - without necessarily using that term overtly - for Northern Ireland. This would align a reconstituted Executive with the Irish and British governments and, to some extent, the European Union - and the Executive might reasonably expect some goodies in reward.

The Westminster election is much more straightforward for the DUP to manage than the fraught Assembly contest.

Overstretched last time, the party attempted the impossible in defending three seats in nine constituencies, reduced in size from six to five. Even without miscalculating how much Sinn Fein had mobilised, the DUP would have been hard-pressed to avoid losses.

Nationalism presents a direct electoral problem for the DUP in only one constituency this time.

In North Belfast, whether John Finucane does better than Gerry Kelly ever did is open to question, but the continuing SDLP candidacy remains far more salient in shaping the likely outcome. Sinn Fein believe that their canvassing returns are as good as - even better in some cases - those of March 2017, but it will still surely be impossible for Finucane to hoover all 3,338 SDLP votes from 2015 in addition to mobilising more Sinn Fein voters.

In Upper Bann, there is the remote chance that the near-even split between the DUP and UUP could let in Sinn Fein, but the demographics render it doubtful.

The DUP's biggest fear ought to lie in East Belfast. The absence of a pan-unionist pact was odd and risky, leaving Naomi Long with a serious chance for Alliance. That would leave the DUP needing to recapture South Antrim from the UUP for Arlene Foster to hail the election as a decent outcome.

The DUP might unseat Danny Kinahan, but odds of 4/6 on Paul Girvan achieving this look too short. Sinn Fein have obvious prospects in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and possibilities in South Down and Foyle.

The likelihood is of similar DUP numbers at Westminster and more Sinn Fein MPs, not at Westminster. As the Brexit going gets tough, those DUP MPs could remain important. Meanwhile, expect a resumption of Stormont at some point, after more vainglorious wrangling. Sinn Fein will have to explain why they are now willing to work with Arlene Foster and the DUP will have to say why they are willing to work an Irish Language Act. But everyone will have voted, so it won't really matter. Do not expect stability. The cyclical crisis-resolution-crisis theme may continue.

See Stormont House Agreement, Fresh Start, passim.

A range of issues remain outstanding, ranging from same-sex marriage to dealing with the past, which are not easily resolved - and in the case of legacy issues, might never be.

A lack of cross-community support for amnesties or truth and reconciliation processes means that arguments over percentage rates of investigations, prosecutions or convictions among one particular side may continue until the Troubles generations have passed away.

In many respects, the collapse of the institutions earlier this year over RHI was in any case nonsensical. Whilst expensive, the sums involved were miniscule compared to the cost of the subvention. A few weeks ago, I addressed a visiting Colombian peace delegation at Ulster University. They seemed attentive enough as the big issues of decommissioning, policing, dealing with the past, etc, were all aired. Then you sensed the visitors' bewilderment as I promised to turn my attention to the 'heating scandal that threatens to collapse the political process'.

5,000 miles for this?

A model for the world, indeed.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest To Power. He is currently co-authoring a study of the UUP

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