There are many histories of how and why the First World War began. Not necessarily the best but one of the most readable is Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the coming of the Great War by Robert J. Massie. One of the most interesting things about his book is the way that, having created the circumstances which led to war the politicians and rulers then scrabbled around in the last few days trying to stop it and were then personally horrified at what they had created.
I am beginning to wonder if the DUP and SF are somnambulating or possibly even consciously marching towards an election. Political parties tend to want elections when they think they will do well in them and when they think their opponents will do badly. I think at this moment rightly or wrongly both the DUP and SF think they would do quite well in an election and that their opponents both within their community and in the other community would do badly.
Turning first to the DUP.
Conventional wisdom has held that the DUP might fear an electoral backlash following their entry into government with SF. In addition with the TUV in the fray the DUP could lose seats; better maybe to wait until after the European election, by which time hopefully Allister will have been defeated and people are more used to DUP power sharing. This calculation has, I believe been made by SF and as such they are happy to push and threaten an election, suspecting that the DUP will cave in to them rather than face both the UUP and TUV at Stormont elections. I suspect they also presume that the DUP are very fearful of SF becoming the largest party and as such having an SF first minister. That problem is something they may fear and is a piece of political short term-ism of which the DUP should be utterly ashamed.
However, I think the DUP calculate that holding the line firmly against SF demands, coupled with the wailing from SF that the DUP are trying to get back to the Stormont of the sainted (or demonic depending on ones position) Basil Brooke, will allow them to sweep all before them at any Stormont election. I suspect that they calculate that they could paint themselves as having moved Not an Inch and squeezed SF so hard that they had to run away. In such circumstances they would argue why unionists should go back to voting for the UUP whos Not an Inch repeatedly ended up with them several feet away from where they started.
They would also ask why anyone should vote TUV: why would they need to when the DUP were being so successful against SF. The DUP also seem to genuinely think that Dromore represented the TUVs high water mark and that getting rid of Paisley represented the necessary catharsis. Finally of course the shameful deviousness by which the DUP allowed the First minister to be from the largest party would allow the DUP to try to blackmail the unionist community into making the DUP the biggest party to stop SF. In such a case the DUP could become the beneficiary of their own sell out: scruples and political parties do not of course necessarily mix. One could almost write the election literature and sound bites now: Why change a winning team, Keep the pressure on republicans, Still winning for Ulster, SF have called an election because they are losing, Help us keep chasing SF after the election. It would take PR incompetence on the scale of Steven Kings to mess it up.
I think, however, the DUP might not do quite as well as they think. Memories of their volte face may last longer than they hope and impressed as people might be by the DUP now standing up to SF, that is what they always wanted them to do. In addition there is the nagging doubt that political parties in Northern Ireland tend to become ever more hard line before elections and Do the Lundy afterwards. One need not look too far past the DUP to see an example of that. As such the unionist electorate would be wise to (and might well) think that after the bluff and bluster of an election campaign, the DUP, if they do well, might suddenly discover that the political life time until P&J is devolved is a similar life span to that of the adult Mayfly.
The DUP, in my opinion, would be incorrect in thinking that they would do very well in any forth coming election. However, I think that they (the DUP) think that they would do well. As such SF trying to scare them by threatening an election might be a very dangerously flawed strategy.
Turning then to SF (All the usual caveats apply in my attempts to analyse an SF position.)
Again the conventional wisdom has been that SF might have something to fear in any election. It is suggested that they have been holding up ordinary politics and that that is hurting their own constituents as well as everyone else. As such there is the possibility that they could be punished in an election.
SF have had some problems in the assembly. They have less experience in parliamentary politics and as such some of their representatives tend to under perform in the assembly chamber. In an election, however, this would not pertain; in contrast SF have always been an extremely formidable electoral machine. Some have suggested that they have lost activists. However, if the election could be presented as SF being the victims and as a straight fight for nationalists rights many workers might rally back to them.
SF could go into an election saying that they had tried to work power sharing but that they had been stalled at every turn by the DUP and their bigotry. They can very easily play the victim here and point out that the things they are demanding (devolution of Policing and Justice, an ILA and the shrine) have already been accepted by the British and Irish governments but are being stalled by the dreadful reactionary bigots of the DUP. They could very easily draw amusing parallels between the DUP and their being out of step with the governments and the position of the old Stormont régime holding onto the property franchise for council elections in Londonderry. Indeed the rhetoric from SF in the recent 40th anniversary of the civil rights marches in Londonderry could almost be seen as preparing the ground work for such an election campaign.
Again in such an election SF might feel that they had little to fear from anti agreement republicans and certainly Karen McHughs very poor showing in Fermanagh may hearten SF. I have suggested previously she was the wrong person, running the wrong campaign in the wrong part of Fermanagh for any useful conclusions to be drawn from that election. However, SF may well gain confidence that even in Fermanagh the rejectionist republicans cannot mount a serious challenge and rejectionist republicanism has certainly failed to gain any momentum. In addition SF, being the richest party in Northern Ireland have no fear of the financial cost of an election.
In an election SF could point to the SDLPs willingness to continue with government despite the DUP stopping the sacred triad (Irish, shrine and policing). In such a scenario it is very likely that SF calculate they could hold or even improve their electoral position. Provided they held their position they could argue that nationalists really do care about the ILA, the shrine and P&J and that they (SF) have a mandate to demand these things.
Once again the election slogans would be easy to write: No return to unionist misrule. Civil rights: then and now.
As I said at the start of this piece most commentators have suggested that neither SF nor especially the DUP want an election and as such most of what has been going on is bluff. That may be the case and I am not necessarily predicting an election. However, both sides have backed themselves into a corner and unless one of them climbs down an election is becoming a very distinct possibility. In light of that both parties may calculate that an election is the lesser of two evils and could even assist them in their battles with one another and with their opponents within their own respective communities. As with the start and even more so the end of the First World War, I have suspicions that the parties calculations of what they might gain and what their opponents might lose in the event of an election may be overly optimistic. However, unless someone does something about it an election may well come and some at least will end up looking back and wishing that they had not made the choices they did.