can be little doubt about how the parties will
fare in next Wednesday's Assembly election. Within
unionism, the DUP will make further gains at the
expense of an Ulster Unionist Party struggling
to convince the electorate that it still has a
role to play.
truth, confidence is so low within the UUP that
it is struggling to convince itself that it has
much of a future. The party knows that it has
yet to reach its lowest electoral ebb, but it
has no idea how far down that might be.
there will be a steady clawing back after this
election, or whether it proves merely to be a
pointer on the road to irrelevance, only time
will tell. What is certain is that it cannot possibly
be in the best interests of the unionist people
to have a single political party representing
the nationalist side, and perhaps of some comfort
to the UUP, the SDLP's gradual recovery looks
set to continue, with the party at least holding
its own and maybe even closing the gap a little
on Sinn Féin.
Mark Durkan's leadership there has been a much-needed
major overhaul of SDLP party structures, resulting
in better internal management and improved relationships
with local communities.
overtly, a continual pointing up of Sinn Féin's
lack of original ideas and questionable negotiating
skills has reminded people that the SDLP remains
the intellectual engine of nationalism. Whatever
the spin and gloss from Sinn Féin, it is
becoming increasingly difficult for republicans
to counter the charge that they simply follow
a path already trodden by their nationalist opponents.
has been, and to some extent will continue to
be, a hard slog back for the SDLP, but at least
there is light on the horizon.
Ulster Unionists actually face a far greater task
than ever confronted the SDLP. Unlike the UUP,
the nationalist party never had to contend with
elected members, party strategists and entire
constituency associations defecting en masse to
next week's result virtually a foregone conclusion,
the main electoral interest for many observers
will lie in the particular rather than in the
general. Can PUP leader Dawn Purvis manage to
hold the late David Ervine's seat in East Belfast?
Will our first ethnic Chinese candidate, Anna
Lo, of the Alliance Party, be elected in South
Belfast? Can Ms Lo's party leader, David Ford,
hold his seat in South Antrim? And will Bob McCartney,
who is standing in six constituencies, make any
inroads into the vote of his erstwhile anti-agreement
allies in the DUP?
grabbing pole position within unionism the DUP
promptly ditched McCartney and left him trying
to hold back the tide of political progress on
his own while they moved instead to attempting
to direct its flow.
is determined to make the DUP suffer at the polls
for their volte face desertion of him and of a
previously shared position. It is more likely
that he will fail even to be re-elected to the
North Down seat he has held.
is the lack of public interest in the election
that voter turnout will be low, particularly among
the unionist electorate. However, for any number
of reasons, the notion being peddled by both the
DUP and Sinn Féin that this might result
in Sinn Féin being returned as the largest
party is founded more on self-interest than on
any realistic chance of that happening.
major problem, and primary cause of public apathy,
is the fact that people are not sure why we are
having an election. It can hardly be argued that
it is to endorse the so-called St Andrews Agreement.
Every party, including the DUP and Sinn Féin,
has distanced itself from that agreement by pointing
out that only the two governments have ownership
of it. Besides, a referendum, not a party election,
is the only democratic way of gauging public support
for a new initiative.
of course, a referendum would not suit the DUP.
They could not permit any "fairer deal"
that they were even remotely associated with to
be put directly to the Northern Ireland people:
no new arrangement could ever hope to win anything
like the public support (72 per cent of an 81
per cent turnout) afforded to the Belfast Agreement
they supposedly despise.
this election is to determine the make-up of an
Assembly and executive. Yet there is no guarantee
that a new Assembly will meet, never mind agree
to form an executive. The British government acceded
to the DUP demand for an election, thinking that
it wanted to seek electoral approval for sharing
power with Sinn Féin.
the motivation seems to be twofold: to damage
further the UUP and to garner a vote - much of
which will actually be for an Assembly to be reinstated
immediately - that can be presented as a blank-cheque
endorsement for more negotiations after polling
day. There should have been no election without
firm guarantees of devolved government on the
a process noted for careful choreography, it looks
this time as though the cart has been put before
with permission from the author.