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Election Guarantees Nothing


David Adams • Irish Times, 2 March 2007

There 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.

In 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.

Whether 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 them.

On 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.

Under 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.

More 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.

It 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.

The 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 their rivals.

With 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?

On 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.

McCartney 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.

Such 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.

A 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.

But, 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.

Ostensibly, 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.

Instead, 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 other side.

In a process noted for careful choreography, it looks this time as though the cart has been put before the horse.



Reprinted with permission from the author.
















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Index: Current Articles

6 March 2007

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