Today there was a council by-election in Lurgan, and the DUP must be thanking their lucky stars that they decided to duck the test in advance. The results tomorrow, with the effective contest being between UCUNF and the TUV, will be worth a look, but the absence of the DUP means it’ll be hard to draw any lessons from it. If there’s a by-election for Iris Robinson’s Castlereagh council seat, which seems likely, that will be the really telling one.
In the broader sense, the British government, in the person of Proconsul Woodward, is deeply concerned about both the Robinson affair and the ongoing wrangle about devolution of policing and justice. The fear is expressed that, if things aren’t hammered out on P&J or if Robbo falls and a successor ticket has to be nominated to the Assembly, Martin McGuinness might collapse the Executive and precipitate a snap election.
I’m not altogether sure why a snap election would be so terrible. There’s a Stormont election due next year anyway, and the most likely outcome would be another round of peace processing before another fudge is arrived at. It would, at most, be a dreadful inconvenience for London and Dublin.
But there are some people who are quite keen to have an election. I was struck by this from Chekov, who of course is representing the UCUNF interest in all of this. Chekov has an intriguing schema, which I think I can summarise thusly:
p1 The scandals surrounding the DUP present UCUNF with a golden opportunity to retake the leading role in unionism;
p2 The Liam Adams affair is generating lots of bad headlines for Sinn Féin, and a revitalised SDLP under Alasdair McDonnell ought to make hay out of this;
p3 We can expect Alliance, with their proven transfer magnetism, to once again do well in the later counts and so probably hold their own;
c This situation allows us to replace the dysfunctional Paisleyite-Provo Executive with an Executive whose centre of gravity would be firmly rooted in the centre ground, like the Trimble-Mallon Executive only better.
Intriguing, as I say, with the only small hitch being that Chekov is relying on rather a lot of contingencies to all go the same way, and it’s not at all clear that they will. Firstly, he’s relying on Martin McGuinness being considerate enough to collapse the Executive. It’s by no means certain that he will.
Secondly, as we saw at Dromore and in the Euro-election, the mass defection of DUP voters to the TUV can allow UCUNF to come through the middle into first place without actually increasing its vote. But if we’re talking about UCUNF not just being the slightly larger of three comparably sized parties, but rather becoming the hegemonic party in unionism, it will need to substantially up its vote. That would mean disillusioned DUP voters switching to UCUNF rather than the TUV, as they have done up to now. Possibly, but Jim Allister is very good at speaking to the disillusioned DUP voter, and I’m not sure there’s much evidence of punters on the Newtownards Road saying, “Hmm, I like the cut of Dave Cameron’s jib. I think I’ll give the New Force a try.” That’s even before you get around how to square the Cameron-approved “Vote For Change” slogan with having Reg Empey’s face on your posters.
Thirdly, although the Liam Adams affair is certainly generating hostile headlines for Gerry, and has the potential to harm him further down the line, it’s not clear that this is happening at the moment. My instinct would be that it would hurt him more in the south than the north (although more in the sense of capping the vote rather than any exodus of the core vote), and that if it got really damaging Gerry would make way anyway. In any case, the SDLP is currently leaderless and directionless; though it’s stemmed its decline, it seems to be flatlining rather than recovering; and a lot depends on whether Alasdair McDonnell really can pull a miracle out of the hat. Remember that there are quite a few constituencies where the SDLP has seats but is below or only just above a quota.
Finally, the coalition of the centre was the wet dream of London and Dublin governments for decades, before electoral mathematics made it impossible. I’m not going to claim that the present Executive functions like a proper government in a mature democracy would, but it’s visibly more stable than the Trimble Executive was. And that’s not just a question of Bobby Storey behaving himself – the DUP love devolution, and they definitely don’t want a return of direct rule if they can possibly avoid it.
But Chekov is not the only man with a schema. Jim Allister also has a cunning plan, and he’ll outline it to anyone who will listen:
p1 The TUV will inflict serious damage on the DUP, and the unionist vote will be shredded three ways;
p2 Sinn Féin will maintain or increase its lead over the SDLP;
p3 The shredding of the unionist vote, as at the Euro-election, will make Sinn Féin the largest party;
p4 Under the St Andrews Agreement, the largest party nominates the first minister;
p5 No unionist politician would be prepared to be deputy first minister to Martin McGuinness;
c The Assembly will collapse, there’ll be a renegotiation, and the GFA mandatory coalition system will be scrapped in favour of voluntary coalition.
This looks a little more plausible to me, with only a couple of possible glitches. One is that, as Martin McGuinness will remind any hapless DUP MLA who refers to him as “the deputy”, the OFMDFM is a joint ministry where neither minister can operate without the other’s consent. In effect, the two are equal, although the FM has a sort of diplomatic precedence. The first minister position is therefore mostly of symbolic significance. David Trimble has made the same point in recent days, possibly flying a kite for Reggie.
The other glitch in Sunny Jim’s plan is that the renegotiation would issue in voluntary coalition. That may be the TUV’s bottom line, but, as Jim knows, the DUP went into the negotiations culminating in St Andrews with a position of voluntary coalition, or at least some arrangement that would allow the Provos to be excluded – and we know how that ended up. It ended up with the Chuckle Brothers.
Actually, if I were in Martin McGuinness’s position, I’d be sorely tempted to go for the snap election, if only for the purposes of naked partisan advantage. Seeing the unionist vote shred whilst once again beating the crap out of the SDLP could only strengthen the PSF hand ahead of yet another round of peace processing. That, and not an Executive of the centre ground, would be the almost inevitable outcome. By 2020, when we have a TUV-éirígí Executive, you’ll see that this is how the dynamic works. No matter how hardline you may be, you’ll always be drawn into the process; and there’ll always be somebody there to call you a lundy and gazump your hardline credentials. There ain’t nothing in the middle of the road but dead hedgehogs.