Power-share and share alike could hold the key
Rotating the office of First Minister so all the Assembly parties have a chance at the job could prove the salvation of the Executive, argues David C Shiels
Would unionists be prepared to accept Martin McGuinness as First Minister? That is the question exercising the minds of unionist politicians as the splits within unionism threaten to allow Sinn Fein to emerge as the largest party after any upcoming Assembly election.
Following the Belfast Telegraph's poll of unionist MLAs, showing a majority would not be prepared to support a McGuinness-led Executive, it seems the prospect of First Minister Marty could do more to derail the institutions than the Robinson family saga or the discussions on policing and justice (which, we are told, are nearing completion).
The possibility that Sinn Fein could emerge as the largest party has been behind the latest talk of 'unionist unity', which has done some damage to the Conservative and Unionist partnership.
In spite of Sir Reg Empey's latest criticisms of the DUP, there is still a chance the unionist parties could put aside differences to deprive Sinn Fein of the top job. Officially, the Conservative and Unionist alliance are sticking to their commitment to field candidates in every constituency at the upcoming General Election. Moving away from that commitment would be likely to lead to accusations of bad faith and would destroy support for the partnership from Northern Ireland Conservatives, who feel strongly about their commitment to offer voters a credible non-sectarian alternative.
The rumour that some sort of pan-unionist ticket could emerge has seen the Conservatives lose three of their potential parliamentary candidates, while the UUP's director of communications has also resigned.
Nevertheless, some Ulster Unionists - and some Conservatives - had been tempted by the DUP's offer to stand aside in either Fermanagh-South Tyrone or South Belfast in return for a reciprocal commitment in the other. It is now thought the DUP could stand aside in these constituencies, giving the Conservatives and Unionists a free run. Even if they did so, there would be no guarantee of any gain for unionism. The headcount is against them in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and in South Belfast the incumbent SDLP MP, Alasdair McDonnell, might prove hard to shift.
What really worries both unionist parties, however, is the next Assembly elections. Due to the proportional voting system, there is the likelihood the three-way split in unionism would have serious consequences for the balance of the parties in the Assembly.
Both the UUP and the TUV have been looking to relieve the DUP of many seats. Recently, the former First Minister Lord Trimble said that for some time the Ulster Unionists had been hopeful they could overtake the DUP in the next Assembly elections and Jim Allister wants enough seats to make the power-sharing arrangement unsustainable.
In the case of the UUP however, the party might want to be careful what they wish for. If they emerge as the largest unionist party at the next Assembly election they might, in the process, also allow Sinn Fein to become the largest single party and claim the post of First Minister. This is what makes a united unionist platform appealing for some.
In many ways the unionist fears of a Sinn Fein First Minister are difficult to explain. The Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister is, as Sinn Fein keep reminding us, a joint office and neither minister can do anything of importance without the other's consent. Having a Sinn Fein First Minister would not be like having a Sinn Fein Education Minister - who is able to make controversial decisions in spite of unionist opposition. Grassroots unionists meanwhile, have grown accustomed to having Sinn Fein ministers in the Executive and even, so the polls tell us, have a grudging respect for the way in which Martin McGuinness has conducted himself in office.
What would be so awful about having him - and, given Gerry Adams's family problems, it would be McGuinness - in the office of First Minister? The reality is, of course, the title of First Minister still confers upon its holder the assumed status of leader of the Ulster people. The fact a unionist holds the post is, for unionists, an important recognition of their majority in the community.
Many unionists feel they have had to over-compensate nationalists for years of majority rule and so cherish what little pre-eminence the position offers. This is why Sinn Fein covet it. Assuming the top job would help them win over doubters in the party and give credence to their claims that the current setup is merely a step along the road to a united Ireland. If McGuinness became First Minister, he would drop all talk of co-First Minister and would present himself as one of the two leaders of the Irish nation (the other being the Taoiseach).
What, then, are unionists to do to avoid this situation? If unionists were to join together they would have to do so before any Assembly election, in order to prevent a repeat of Sir Reg Empey's embarrassing attempt to re-designate David Ervine as an Ulster Unionist in the hope of gaining an extra ministerial seat.
Such an arrangement would dismay nationalists, who would see another attempt by unionists to manipulate Assembly rules to their advantage. It might also dismay the moderate voters.
It is true that any discussion with the DUP about the Assembly would not necessarily replace the Conservative and Unionist alliance, which has the principal aim of increasing their representation in the House of Commons and in the European Parliament.
If the DUP was prepared to recognise the Conservative and Unionist ambitions by standing aside in two constituencies, the Ulster Unionists, independent of the Conservative Party, would be free to talk with the DUP about the future of the Assembly. So long as they retain their commitment to maximising Northern Ireland's participation in mainstream British politics, they will be doing the province a service.
The time for such a deal, however, may have passed. Unionist politicians have failed to provide clear leadership on the matter. Instead, they have allowed the endless stream of rumours to damage their cause. The only alternative now is for unionists to lose their inhibitions about Sinn Fein in the office of First Minister and to keep the spirit of unionist party competition alive.
If they want the devolved settlement to work, a swift and positive response to the devolution of policing and justice might even allow them to negotiate some changes to OFMDFM.
Could all the parties be persuaded to accept a rotating office, so that each party has a go at the top job on an annual basis?
That might just be the answer to the current difficulties - and would allow for the creation of a genuine four-party Executive.