Interesting to note that the Guardian today seemed so blissfully unaware of the debacle behind the scenes that they have chosen to mark Thursday in advance in its leader column, by suggesting a smooth transition will prove how we’ve all finally grown up and gotten lives of our own (or whatever it was that Jonathan Powell said). Now no one is sure any more. Whilst Gerry Adams was in London seeing Gordon Brown, his press officer Richard McAuley was in Stormont briefing the press in great detail as to why his party might want to trigger the competition. He may even have been a source for Martina Purdy’s impressive series of Socratic questions, highlighted by Gonzo earlier.Most other parties are convinced the DUP would take a hit in any snap election. It’s not a suggestion the DUP is going out of its road to deny either. The most pessimistic estimates suggest losses of up to five or six, (but they could be considerably more marginal) to Jim Allister’s TUV. This is an embryonic organisation, with one star player in a highly amateur team. A snap election would give them little time to organise.
The SDLP might pick up the seat they carelessly threw away last year in West Tyrone at the expense of Donal Deeney. Any substantial TUV churn in Strangford could knock Alliance man Keiran McCarthy out of his seat and drop it into the lap of the SDLP. That might be enough for them to take a second seat in the Executive, possibly at the expense of the DUP or UUP (any help with d’Hondt calculations gratefully received). That would score as a clear win.
The omens are mixed for the UUP. There are not many openings for them. According to one analysis of the Dromore byelection, there appears to be a dynamic abroad that suggests that as DUP voters are shipping out to the TUV, the UUP is also losing votes to the DUP. On the other hand, the party report they are getting substantial numbers of new members coming in. Their priority might be simply not to become the fall guys for any SDLP gains.
The DUP will likely major on the hardening of Sinn Fein’s response to the St Andrews Agreement, and the threat (real or imagined) of handing the First Minister’s job to Sinn Fein. Since most estimates on the extent of the damage they are facing are being extrapolated from a single ward in District Council byelection, it is uncertain just how much damage they are likely to ship. But any loss or none, will not to improve the working atmosphere when they return to the Executive table.
Sinn Fein look close to invulnerable in any future competition on the ground. Low turn outs generally favour them. However the scope for actual gains are marginal, though few would bet against them doing something handy, somewhere. The notional calculation centres on punishing the DUP. To do that the TUV need to do well. That’s a risky calculation for a nationalist party, not least when you consider that if the stratagem is successful the Unionist majority in the Assembly will likely be less rather than more generous to the party’s demands on St Andrews.
Strip away the layers, and this looks like a threat intended to trigger a way out of Sinn Fein’s internal Catch 22 over the devolution of policing and justice powers. Trying to externalise that internal crisis is a risky strategy, mostly because so much of the record is exposed to public view. But there is a further irony. If it goes to election, they may find themselves in a subtly more hostile parliamentary environment (they are already in a minority of one: see here and here). And no closer to bringing their shopping list to fruition than before. Which may just sharpen some of the questions on the doorstep as to why on earth we’d be having this election in the
first second place?
In short, there is leverage to be had in creating a crisis, but not if Robinson calls their bluff and actually goes for the election. And how exactly do they sell a compromise without running into accusations of the kind of ‘Grand Old Duke of York’ gambit that backfired on Gordon Brown?