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Bread and butter issues will suffer under single bloc

With the possibility of Martin McGuinness as First Minister in 2011, the next Assembly election threatens to become a headcount to end all headcounts.

Whether the DUP rehashes its ‘smash Sinn Fein' mantra alone, or a ‘unity' pact is struck between unionist parties, the contest could be bitter and sectarian.

The legislation that followed the St Andrews Agreement specifying that the First Minister should be drawn from the largest party rather than the largest designation ensures the campaign is likely to be all about McGuinness.

If a single unionist bloc emerges to counteract Sinn Fein, bread and butter politics will suffer and genuine policy differences between unionists will be buried. Hardly a recipe for good governance at Stormont.

The irony is that the general election campaign, and its aftermath, saw real signs that finance, rather than the border question, could take centre stage. The emphasis remains avoiding cuts at all costs, not a broader discussion about their necessity, but real socio-economic differences are beginning to animate Assembly debates.

The relatively muted reaction to the Bloody Sunday inquiry also provides encouragement for the middle ground. The arguments were well rehearsed, but despite the extreme sensitivities touched upon by Saville, little inflammatory rhetoric followed.

Northern Ireland edges towards political maturity, but |it is a slow process which could easily be derailed.

The devolved institutions are designed to perpetuate community difference and lock parties into a false consensus, rather than encourage a new, healthy, contest of ideas.

A voluntary coalition government, with cross-community safeguards, is an alternative model which attracts unionists, and even Mark Durkan, the former SDLP leader, has spoken in its favour. But it is also undeliverable in the short-term.

And the likelihood of parties withdrawing from the Executive to form an informal opposition has retreated following Alliance's acceptance of the Justice Ministry.

With the present set-up at Stormont, and UCUNF's failure to gain momentum, Northern Ireland's constitutional status is likely to remain the focus of Stormont elections for the time being.

That's bad for unionism, whose interests are best served by normalising Northern Ireland's status within the UK.

Owen Polley is a liberal unionist commentator and blogs at Three Thousand Versts of Loneliness

Belfast Telegraph