Will the election change anything?

Will it mean long stalement between the DUP and Sinn Fein? Alex Kane thinks not: “…both parties will quickly pick up from where they left off last December”. And he doesn’t think that Tony Blair “will go away you know”.By Alex Kane

So, three weeks into the campaign and five days from the election itself, how has it been for you? Did the earth move for you as the various suitors plied you with literature, broadcasts, debates and doorknockers? Was your mind made up, or an existing opinion altered, by the confetti of mini manifestos and the tidal wave of promises to spend, spend, spend?

Every election here is really three separate elections: the intra-unionist election, the intra-nationalist one and the old faithful demographic headcount of Prods and Taigs. To a large extent it has always been a phoney war, but this time round it feels like the real thing. Sinn Fein and the DUP have only one mission, the destruction of the SDLP and UUP. Oddly enough, neither of their main manifestos sets out realistic proposals for what they will do if they succeed in their electoral ambition. Winning, at all costs, and at whatever long term consequence, seems to be all that matters to them.

But having been round a number of constituencies I must admit that I am not detecting a meltdown of the UUP vote. Yes, the party has huge problems, and there will be political and psychological damage if it is reduced to three seats or less; but it will still be standing on May 6, with between 110 and 130 councillors. It will still poll a considerable proportion of the pro-Union vote, and I would urge those who are preparing its obituary to put their pens down. That said, this is a watershed election for the party and real change must come after the election. But more on that subject next week.

Will the election change anything? Some pundits suggest that a consolidation around the Sinn Fein and DUP power blocs will simply produce a semi-permanent stalemate, with nothing happening for years and Northern Ireland being subjected to Direct Rule for the forseeable future. I’m not so sure. In the past few days Peter Robinson has shifted from the view that it will take a “generation” to uncouple Sinn Fein from the IRA, and has hinted that he would like another Assembly election fairly soon. If the DUP is already thinking about yet another fresh mandate, it would suggest that it is already thinking about a new deal with Sinn Fein.

It is clearly not in the political or electoral interests of either the DUP or Sinn Fein to encourage stalemate. For entirely different, albeit mutually contradictory reasons, both parties need the Assembly up and running as soon as possible. Neither can risk the closing down of the presently redundant Stormont, for that would involve returning to the drawing board for a very long haul. That being the case, it seems inevitable that both parties will quickly pick up from where they left off last December.

On the national scene I expect Mr Blair to be returned with a comfortable enough majority to keep Labour securely in office for another four or five years. The Conservatives, of course, will immediately start skinning each other again in the search for a leader who can snatch the keys to Number 10. The abysmal position they find themselves in is summed up by the fact that although the opinion polls are recording record lows on the issue of Blair’s honesty, the electorate still prefers him to Michael Howard.

Some people wonder if Mr Blair, weakened, tired and preoccupied with other matters, will choose to put Northern Ireland on the back burner in the run-up to his retirement. I doubt it. On the same principle that a dog returns to its own vomit, Prime Ministers return to the one thing that they had hoped would be the crowning glory of their tenure. Blair wants a deal here, a deal that is stable and sustainable. And to that end he will continue to flatter and indulge the various leaders of Northern Ireland’s rival communities.

Let me suggest a more radical approach for the Prime Minister. Don’t return any of their calls. Don’t facilitate negotiations or act as a go-between for people who are willing to share power but who won’t actually talk to each other. Tell them to get on with it themselves, work out something that they are all willing to buy into and then agree to establish the necessary structures for them when they have signed on the dotted line.

The nature of politics here is that our local leaders, all of whom represent a very tiny fraction of the UK electorate, are pampered and indulged as though they were world statesmen. They are not. They are parish-pump politicians with a very poor track record of doing deals or delivering the goods. And they get away with their obstructionist and pompous approach because successive Prime Ministers have allowed them to get away with it. It really is time they grew up and behaved like political adults.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 30th April 2005