Belfast Telegraph

McGuinness unruffled as the unionists scuffle

By Liam Clarke

The row over whether unionists would combine to stop Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister exposes some of the fault lines in Northern Ireland as the parties slip into election mode.

UUP leader Tom Elliott came up with the idea when he told me if Sinn Fein topped the poll he would consider forming a single Assembly party with other unionists after the election so they could deny Mr McGuinness the post.

The DUP reacted with something approaching fury and left no doubt that they emphatically rejected the idea, which Mr Elliott admits he didn't sound them out on.

Then Mr McGuinness himself stepped in to say that if he comes out on top he would consider sharing the title with the leader of the largest unionist party.

We could make it Joint First Ministers instead of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, he suggested, pointing out that the two jobs are equivalent in all but name. Both the First and Deputy First Minister have to agree on most things anyway.

In reality, these comments serve the electoral interests of the respective parties.

No-one really thinks that Sinn Fein will top the poll.

They came out ahead in the European election in 2009, but the DUP had replaced their key vote-getter - Ian Paisley - with a new candidate in Diane Dodds, who had just lost a council seat.

The UUP and Sinn Fein were both fielding sitting candidates and Jim Allister was there to further divide the unionist vote.

These are circumstances that won't be repeated in an Assembly election - barring a resurgence of the UUP and a collapse of the SDLP.

Last time out, the DUP were eight seats ahead of Sinn Fein and it's unlikely that gap will be closed. The DUP is still favourite to remain the largest party.

Yet the prospect of being beaten by Sinn Fein is still a useful one to keep alive before the election.

To give the DUP their due, the main ones mentioning it so far have been the UUP, but that may change as the campaign develops.

If the DUP is in danger of being overtaken then candidates can argue that a vote for any other unionist could let Sinn Fein in.

It is the oldest ploy in Northern Ireland politics: vote to keep "the other crowd" in second place.

As the DUP points out, the UUP can't hope to emerge as the biggest party because it isn't fielding enough candidates to do so. Mr Elliott's suggestion that even if the unionist vote splits down the middle it can join up again after the election undermines this case.

He is telling voters that they can vote for him and Sinn Fein will still lose.

Mr McGuinness doesn't relish being used as a bogeyman to frighten unionists into the polling booths. And it doesn't suit him to be painted as a loser if he comes second.

So it is preferable to make the generous gesture which can make Sinn Fein look strong and calm amid the squabbling unionists.

He is ahead on points after the first skirmish of the election, but it is early days.

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