Last week Sam McBride pointed to an important underlying truth of this Assembly election campaign. Whilst Arlene Foster may get political money out of using her main partner in government at OFMdFM as some latter-day Guy Fawkes scare figure, there’s very little danger of it happening.
At first glance, the gap may seem much closer than it actually is. Indeed, over two or three elections it’s possible to conceive that the crude mechanism of making the leader of the largest single party symbolic First Minister could see unionism overhauled.
This works better if you assume that the two smaller parties carry no weight in future elections. A far stronger bet for a strategic target on Thursday is the uptick of just one seat for Sinn Fein so that they can have their own powerful veto in the Assembly and be able to table their petitions of concern.
…any party with 30 MLAs also represents a majority within unionism and nationalism respectively, that means that in effect any party able to single-handedly table a petition of concern can effectively veto any Assembly business of which it disapproves.
In 2011, Sinn Fein fell just one short of that number and therefore could only table petitions of concern where it could persuade at least one other MLA – generally from the SDLP – to sign the document.
That meant, for instance, that although Sinn Fein has a veto at the Executive table the party found itself powerless to block legislation – including Jim Allister’s Special Advisers Bill and John McCallister’s Opposition Bill – emanating from the Assembly itself.
As a one-off, the SpAd Bill was an exceptional measure which snuck through the administration’s net (where both OFMdFM parties already have fabulous curative powers). Winning 30 seats would mean Sinn Fein could wield the knife as comprehensively as the DUP currently does.
But even here there’s a problem. No one doubts that in the internal unionist race the DUP will lose seats: thus, the plausibility of the ‘keep Martin out’ campaign. But the stasis in Nationalism means it won’t be easy for SF even to pick up that extra seat never mind overhaul the DUP.
The UUP would have an unfeasibly large amount of ground to cover in order to cut the DUP down to a dangerously low level of 30 seats, at a time when the most optimistic projections have them barely breaking 20 seats.
As Chris notes, the Nationalist vote share is currently getting squeezed (there are places where a nationalist quota at council level seems not to materialise in the Assembly and vice versa, suggesting the vote is only holding together on the basis of personality).
Within that scenario, Sinn Fein too is at about the zenith of its own growth point (or within this long phase anyhow), so that some drop back in their seat position is also to be expected.
Somehow the scenario of Martin as First Minister doesn’t seem quite so real and as present a danger as it’s so regularly projected by the DUP and within the discourse of the wider media.