Davy Adams has an analysis (subs needed) on the former incumbent parties of Nationalism and Unionism. Whilst in the SDLP he sees solid reorganisation, and the beginning of a distinctive identity, he reckons the UUP have continued to struggle with some of the basics.
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.
However, all the parties are likely to struggle against what looks like being a very low turn out. The answer, Adams suggests, goes back to the basic question of why we are having it in the first place:
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.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty