Status quo beckons at Stormont

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by Peter Geoghegan

Unlike here in Scotland, local authorities in Northern Ireland appear to place precious few restrictions on election placards. In East Belfast, where I spent last weekend, just about every lamppost on the street carried an election dictum of some description, whether it was the rather dour face of the local Traditional Unionist Voice candidate or the generic DUP posters imploring voters to ‘Keep Northern Ireland Moving Forward’.

As ever in Northern Ireland, of course, what you don’t see is as important as what you do. In this staunchly unionist part of East Belfast, there wasn’t a single Alliance placard on the street, never mind a billboard in support of the SDLP or the Shinners. Instead the closest thing to cross-community appeal in this particular neighbourhood is Dawn Purvis, former leader of the UVF-aligned Progressive Unionist Party who resigned from the party last year following the paramilitaries’ involvement in a murder on Belfast’s Shankill Road.

 

Like Scotland, this is the fourth election to Northern Ireland’s devolved administration – but there the similarities between the two jurisdictions end. Where the campaign in Scotland has been open, unpredictable and still hangs in the balance, across the Irish Sea the big election story has been how little there is to play for.

There are 128 seats at Stormont: it will be a major surprise if more than six or seven change hands after votes are counted on Friday.

The muted election campaign is, in part, a reflection of the rather prosaic nature of political life at Stormont. Almost 13 years after the first Northern Irish Assembly election, and after countless false starts, hiatuses and disagreements, this is the first time that voters are going to the polls with a fully functioning power-sharing executive in place. Indeed, the Hillsborough Agreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP, which finally allowed for the devolution of policing powers, was only signed in February 2010.

In certain respects, this is an election that no one in Northern Ireland really wants – besides Jim Allister’s recalcitrant Traditional Unionist Voice – and results are likely to reflect this. The worst of the spending cuts have yet to hit and clear blue – or green – water between the parties’ policies on anything bar the national question (a minor issue in this election) is difficult to find.

First Minister Peter Robinson’s DUP go into the election with 36 seats, followed by Sinn Fein on 28, the Ulster Unionists on 18, the SDLP on 16 and Alliance on 7 with an assorted of Greens and others holding three seats. Every poll so far suggests that there will be no significant change in this running order – not that this has dissuaded Jim Allister or the UUP’s new leader Tom Elliott invoking the Sinn Fein bogeyman, warning of the dire threat to unionism if the republicans become the largest party in Stormont and McGuinness first minister (McGuinness, for his part, has stated that, if such were to transpire, he’d abolish the distinction between FM and DFM and have Robinson as joint first minister).

DUP, who polled particularly well in 2007, could lose a couple of seats but might pick up an extra seat in North Down and are almost certain to consolidate their position as Northern Ireland’s largest party. Sinn Fein would dearly love to push their representation up to the mark 30 mark – which would get them a petition-of-concern veto in the Assembly, like the DUP already has – but the likelihood of making gains from the SDLP, the core source of Sinn Fein’s electoral success over the last decade, is remote. However, there are a couple of seats that might change hands from unionist to nationalist.

The Ulster Unionist party, led by Elliott, a farmer from rural Fermanagh for whom the adjective ‘agricultural’ could have been invented, continue to be the basket case of Northern Irish politics. For so long the party of governance, the official unionists should have plenty of room to grow, mainly at the DUP’s expense, but following a decidedly mediocre campaign are unlikely to pick up more than an additional seat or two. Meanwhile, the SDLP, now under the stewardship of Margaret Ritchie, are looking to the stem the flow of seats to Sinn Fein that has been a feature of every Stormont election since 1998.

The vote has probably comes about six months late for the cross-community Alliance party, who, buoyed by the success of Naomi Long at last year’s Westminster election, had hoped to finally make a breakthrough outside greater Belfast. Elsewhere, former DUP MEP Jim Allister is expected to take a seat in Antrim, but is expected to be TUV’s sole MLA, and the Greens seem set to lose their sole Stormont representative.

With unemployment a major problem, spending cuts kicking in, and demands for power to set corporation tax rates, the next term will doubtless be the most difficult within Castle Buildings. Once it’s over we will know more about the long-term prospects for a real change Northern Irish politics – who knows, maybe some day that street in East Belfast won’t just have unionist billboards at election time. But not quite yet.