The problem with another election…

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?

, ,

  • Chris Donnelly

    Nothing like high stakes politics, eh Mick?

    A couple of points arising from your interesting comments.

    Whatever about Sinn Fein receiving flak from the SDLP a la McGlone and McDonnell today, were this situation to escalate towards an election I think you’d find the SDLP adopting a Sinn Fein line on the P and J and the Irish Language Act pretty quickly as the doorsteps began to beckon. Arguing that they’d have done a better job with their current leadership in the mess that it finds itself I’d hardly suspect will convince many.

    One point missed on the Dromore by-election was the confirmation it provided of just how low the SDLP had fallen, with Sinn Fein outpolling the SDLP candidate in that DEA. By my reckoning, Dessie Ward would be handily placed to up the Sinn Fein tally with a gain in Upper Bann, though I agree with you that, elsewhere, it’d likely be as was, with a couple of SDLP gains (S’ford and W Tyrone) adding another nationalist ministry round the table.

    The political consensus within Stormont may have found this a surprising development, but I can’t say that nationalists on the ground will be similarly surprised.

    To my mind, republicans have been (overly?) generously providing Paisley with space to bed in to the new arrangements, but with Robinson coming into the ascendancy and the DUP reneging on what I suspect were private assurances between republicans and DUPers at a senior level, it is the right time for Sinn Fein to call time and create the type of pressure cooker atmosphere which always seems necessary to deliver a deal.

    I believe this dispute will probably resolve itself at some stage in a less dramatic outcome than an election. However, I do believe that we have turned the pages from the first chapter of Stormont’s latest story and we look likely to be destined for that battle a day some of us predicted some time ago.

  • Pete Baker

    “the DUP reneging on what I suspect were private assurances between republicans and DUPers at a senior level”

    We don’t have to suspect.

    We have Martin’s own account of those assurances..

    “It was Ian junior that said it..”

    The problem that remains for the Sinn Féin leadership is that ‘standing by St Andrews’ didn’t mean what the leadership promised the party members and activists it meant.

    As Iris Robinson pointed out

    While it would seem foolish for republicans to accept the outlandish boasts and rhetoric of the Sinn Fein leadership when playing to their base and not see through them, it would be even more foolish for unionists to fall into the trap of believing them.

  • Pete Baker

    I should probably add Martin’s later corrective to the situation..

    “as you well know..”

  • Mick Fealty

    Chris,

    You’ve put your finger on the reason why the SDLP won’t make much progress against SF for the foreseeable future: they’ve not staked out any substantial political ground for themselves.

    Agree too on Upper Bann. You marked that out last year as an outside chance – though if I recall, the SF vote was strongest in the South Down end.

    I’m sceptical that a battle a day is possible. The inclusivity of institutions makes them too conservative, and weighted against change, to make that viable.

  • Agree too on Upper Bann. You marked that out last year as an outside chance – though if I recall, the SF vote was strongest in the South Down end.

    Massively so (over 70% in and around Leitrim village), and none of Dromore is in Upper Bann anyway.

    I just don’t think P&J;- as opposed to the practical implementation of policing – is that big an issue on the doorsteps. Going into an election complaining about your own weakness is not smart either. I take the point about the SDLP’s lack of a unique selling point but SDLP weakness is not in and of itself sufficient for SF strength.

  • Mick Fealty

    I meant to add that the Finnis end of the DEA retained stronger SDLP support. It’s not a uniform pattern. It’s late, I’m off to bed.

  • Events, my dear boy

    A second seat for SF in Upper Bann is no longer as good a possibility as it once was after the Parades Review body, with a certain senior republican on board, decided to link the parading issue to policing and justice. Friends in Portadown tell me that there was a massive negative reaction within the nationalist community there to those proposals, and apparently an internal SF meeting held in the area with several senior heads in attendance to try and repair that damage got very hot and heavy. Seems the message from local SFer’s was simple – do a deal over Garvaghy and kiss goodbye to any chance of a second seat as over a thousand SF votes could disappear in Portadown.

  • kensei

    Pete

    We don’t have to suspect.

    We have Martin’s own account of those assurances..

    You assume that MMGs account was the only assurance given to him, and the only assurance given to any SF member.

    I suspect the DUP gave some private commitment, but I suspect most of the assuring came from the British Government. Regardless, they didn’t secure public commitments and are paying the price.

    Mick

    If Nationalists gain a seat, I believe Unionism is no longer a majority in the Assembly.

    And no closer to bringing their shopping list to fruition than before

    I think you are wrong on this. The mandate to do whatever they need to get the shopping list puts them in a stronger position. Strength flows from the democratic process, and if Nationalism backed SF they have a mandate to walk away if at least some of the demands are not met. That gives them much more leverage, I feel.

    Sammy

    I just don’t think P&J;- as opposed to the practical implementation of policing – is that big an issue on the doorsteps. Going into an election complaining about your own weakness is not smart either. I take the point about the SDLP’s lack of a unique selling point but SDLP weakness is not in and of itself sufficient for SF strength. …

    SF’s failure has been to not link the two. But I think P&J;is an issue of importance to SF’s base. Whether the more middle class end of the vote would run with it versus being annoyed at the instability is hard to say. I disagree though – SDLP weakness, if it means SF don’t lose seats is sufficient for SF strength.

    There are risks in this for SF too. It’s a tough ask to repeat the awe inspiring performance in West Belfast, and a Ruane vs Ritchie fight is a potential source of embarrassment. But after digesting this, the calculation of DUP damage versus SF damage might favour SF. There are two potential symbolic wins — Unionists dropping below 50% of the seats for the first time and the loss of a ministry for Unionism, both of which are completely possible.

  • PaddyReilly

    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.

    Hardly. Keiran is way higher than the SDLP man. It is the 4th DUP seat that is most at risk.

    But really- we haven’t got further than an obvious fabrication in the Belfast Torygraph. This election isn’t going to happen.

  • Pete Baker

    “You assume that MMGs account was the only assurance given to him, and the only assurance given to any SF member.”

    It’s the best assurance that Martin, as deputy First MInister, could come up with.

    If you have better references, Ken, please do provide them.

  • LURIG

    Events my dear boy,

    Not just Upper Bann & Portadown. There are a LOT of grassroots Republicans & Nationalists in other areas who won’t buy into a sell out/buy off DUP deal that sacrifices the dignity and basic human rights of the long suffering people on the Garvaghy Road or Lower Ormeau Road. Any dirty underhand pact that is solely designed to keep senior Shinners sweet with Robinson & the DUP is a NON starter and will not go down well with many Nationalists. After what has gone on the last 12 years and what people have suffered we may just as well walk away and hand TOTAL power & control to Unionists & the Securocrats if the Garvaghy Road & Lower Ormeau people are sidelined.

  • Dewi

    I read that Guardian editorial and chuckled also. London papers just seem to have withdrawn from the nations / regions don’t they? They don’t even seem to report on the Celtic League these days.

    Anyway – I’ve got a new paradigm for the conduct of politiciams:

    It’s called the Continuum of Aspiration – or if you like snappy titles: “The Aspiration Continuum)

    Each of “the communities” has a series of aspirations:
    On the nationalist side pick the top ten and score them from 1 to 10 – like United Ireland 10, Less Summer shit 9, devolution of P&J;8 etc etc.
    On the unionist side (far from an expert) but: No Southern interference 10 maybe down to No Irish language signs 1 – dunno – it will be up to each community to define.

    The success of government can then be measured by added up the scores on each continuum table. It’s not a game of absolutes.

    Anyway, I hope SF carry out their threat – about time for another election !

  • aquifer

    Elections are exhausting and outcomes always uncertain to some degree. Middle ground parties could come back now that the ethnic outbidders have split the difference in government, trashing their extremist credentials. The middling parties would have to agree and echo some key themes that would damage our unwilling SFDUP coalition of political ‘on the runs’.

    Someone should certainly put political manners on the DUP. They have tried to lord it over the executive where responsibility is supposed to be collective.

    In an election it might not just be SF paying back.

  • Mick Fealty

    Paddy,

    You’re obviously not getting the briefings; don’t you read/watch the BBC? Although I agree the election shouldn’t happen. If only by the logic of an as good as a ‘no change’ (ie, wtf) outcome.

    Ken,

    Interesting. I’d not seen that before. Although, I’m not sure the Greens will hold on in North Down if Brian Wilson keeps to his promise to step down. So if there is only a one seat change (West Tyrone), that could well be cancelled out there if it goes to anyone but Alliance.

  • truth and justice

    I think Sinn Fein will suffer they have caused a crisis after a year of stability Middle class Catholic voters will be very upset they are rocking the boat, there is also the fact that they have messed up the education systen and i am not sure that by doing what they are doing will play well with voters in the South. If there is an elecion the SDLP if they run one candidate should take a seat in Tyrone, possibly Stangford, Sinn Fein could also loose a seat in West Belfast if Unionism bothers to come out and vote.The same in South Belfast.

  • Driftwood

    There wont be an election. Too many ifs. SF have swallowed hard and accepted British rule. Marty may ask Peter for the occasional “treat” but will only receive if he says please, please enough. Funny to watch SF running to ‘Daddy’ Brown yesterday though to moan that big brother is being mean and horrid to them.

  • kensei

    Pete

    If you have better references, Ken, please do provide them.

    We don’t know everything, Pete, and there is no particular harm at speculating at motives. It doesn’t require the same point repeated endlessly.

    But in this instance I was merely pointing out that your statement was not strictly accurate.

    Mick

    There are few more potential gains and a few more potential losses floating around. I’d guess a swing of about 3 seats to either block is possible given their best / worst conditions. It’s a high risk strategy but it does look like there would be some rewards if it paid off. I still don’t think SF want the election, though.

  • ulsterfan

    SF will support Robinson to morrow. They have had a tantrum and now it is back to business.
    I would still like to know why did they start the rumour in the first place.

  • Jer

    I would think that a northern ireland election is still an outside bet.

  • Driftwood

    I would still like to know why did they start the rumour in the first place.

    Yeah, they are starting to look even more childish now. Will probably distance themselves from the rumour, and hope no-one remembers their hissy fit. “Gordon,those unionists are not giving us what we want, please tell them to do so”. Gordon told them to fuck up, grow up, and off they went back to their bedrooms to sulk for a while.

  • It was Sammy Mc Nally what done it

    Presumably Grizzly told Gordo he has to deliver the DUP using threats etc just as Tony delivered the big fellah previously. P and J is a key part of the ‘peace’ deal and there is no way that Gordo is going to risk this unravelling – hence the fact that Grizzly can get the undivided attention of the British Prime Minister in the middle of his own set of crises.

    Most likely outcome is statement by Robbo which will indicate movement before end of year on P and J (however coded) and delivery sometime in Autumn.

    Verdict: No election, Gordo to clip Robbo around the ear and Robbo to issue statement. Grizzly to do a big lupine smile.

  • ZoonPol

    IF SF does hold out for an election then there is a greater likelihood than before that a ‘green’ inclined party will dominant the Hill as its clear that the TUV has, statistically anyway, reduced the DUP ability to hold on to the first preference votes that came from the official unionist voter.
    In my opinion even though the above is an attractive power play for SF the ‘orange’ would not tolerate having a ‘green’ first minister and even the DUP can sell that to their electorate.
    There is a maxim that says that you cannot have you cake and eat it but as Stormont shows this is false and as a consequence it’s a bluff even if it favours SF.

  • Mick Fealty

    Ken,

    “I still don’t think SF want the election, though”

    That’s not what they are telling the press.

  • Rory

    Without wishing to appear too pedantic: shouldn’t a Grizzly do an ursine smile?

  • Anyway, I hope SF carry out their threat – about time for another election !

    Sammy Morse slaps Dewi with the Hand of Death!

  • Mark McGregor

    Sammy,

    You’re bluffing worse than a shinner, we all know that you more than most would love an election.

  • kensei

    Mick

    That’s not what they are telling the press.

    I thought there were differing briefings?

    Regardless, Brown let impression build too. I think the ideal SF outcome is enough movement on some of those issues to avoid the election. I don’t think they want called on it, though they may go for the election if it is. But I doubt it is their first choice.

  • Dessertspoon

    “The problem with another election…”

    Nobody but eejits and journalists want it!

  • Nobody but eejits and journalists want it!

    And election anoraks, of which there are quite a few on slugger!

  • Dessertspoon

    Horseman – the anoraks were included in the “eejits” category!

  • Can’t Wait

    There are a few in the DUP quaking at the prospect of an election. TUV may not win many seats but they will cause DUP to lose quite a few. More than a handful of low intellect DUP MLA’s whose only contribution to political life is to follow ambulances, police cars and fire engines and pepper the media with the standard contributions of condemnation and calls to help the police will be returning to the real world after an election. They will miss their ego boosting empire of offices and their army of party mates who depend on them for a wage. Isn’t democracy a great thing!

  • DC

    “To my mind, republicans have been (overly?) generously providing Paisley with space to bed in to the new arrangements,”

    I agree Chris, ffs I actually agree with you, it is a first seriously. I have no doubt that SF could have preempted non-devolved legislation over language and perhaps policing but didn’t in order to keep up some form of coalition governance, especially given Blair’s record. But in order to operate devolution a bank now to implement later process was devised and perhaps it was a crude case of what ‘DUP voters don’t know now wont learn them’.

    It is my view on reading the GFA and St Andrews that a clear intent was given and SF has provided the basis to secure consensus on devolving PJ powers given its moves backing the police and justice arrangements, so yes time to move on and build up arrangements that will mature devolution but also create new thought over how we should create measures to govern ourselves appropriately together.

    That of itself can still be vetoed but let’s at least have control of such powers in the first instance!