Election in the offing?

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 one’s 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 who’s “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 TUV’s 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 King’s 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 McHugh’s 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 SDLP’s 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.

  • slug

    Wouldn’t there be people who would vote SDLP/UUP in order to have parties that actually can work together? Thus isn’t the threat from the centre?

  • Turgon

    Maybe: if so that would be practically the first time ever in Northern Irish politics. In addition, the uselessness of the UUP and SDLP somewhat argue against it.

  • Greenflag

    Elections in Northern Ireland don’t ever change anything . They never have and never will . They can’t . Any real change to date has had to be imposed by HMG over the heads of Unionist parties . From Sunningdale to the Anglo Irish Agreement to the GFA there has always been about 50% or more of Unionists opposed to any political accomodation with Irish nationalism or republicanism . So called power sharing is just another canard in a long list of canards to make the unpalateable seem edible .

    Why SF or the SDLP continue to bother with this sham institution I have no idea . Perhaps they have begun to ‘fatten’ on the contributions of the English taxpayer to their present status .?

  • IJP


    To be honest, I see no appetite for an election from anyone up at the Hill.

    Would you want to be an MLA explaining yourself on the doorstep?

    Thought not!

  • Ned


    A good analysis. I suspect there could well be an election before the scheduled date in 2011 for these reasons.

    One caveat though – I think it won’t happen in the short term because, as you say, the DUP will want to see Allister crushed next June before risking any poll that could return some unwelcome TUV MLAs. If we’re still deadlocked after the Euro Elections, the chance of an Assembly poll in late 2009 or 2010 may become very real indeed.

    But then — further thought — SF might force such a Poll on the same day as the Euro Elections by resigning their ministers. That would be the most difficult date for the DUP to face an Assembly Poll, due to the Allister / TUV effect. Well, you wouldn’t bet against it, would you? Could they / would they do that I wonder?

  • The Raven

    “In addition, the uselessness of the UUP and SDLP somewhat argue against it.”

    Not usually do I find myself getting spurred into writing on this sort of thread. Turgon, at this moment in time, those of us sitting outside of Protestant/Catholic “strongholds” or strongly-identified communities think that they are ALL pretty useless. I would say many within those communities feel the same.

    However, I recently ended up at somewhere Sir Reg was speaking. This is the first time in a very long time that I have found a politician to be engaging, forthright, and (can’t believe I’m writing this) listenable. Actually, this was the first opportunity I have had to see him speak, whereas I have had the chance to see the usual stage-managed affairs from the rest of the ministerial bunch.

    Unscripted, taking questions from the floor, he made a better case for using a vote than I have seen the other parties make over the past two years. And I would place myself as no friend of Ulster Unionism.

    I really hope that everybody, including yourself is completely wrong about this – I hope that the usual party faithful have had a wake-up call beyond the usual constitutional issues. I hope that many stay away from the polls in droves, allowing a few more centre-ist politicians through. I hope that if an election is called, it will herald some small changes that might make a difference to how things aren’t being run around here.

    I could probably write here: “cue anti-Trimble types saying oh-look-what-it-was-like-the-last-time”. But that was what? 2002? Much has changed since then. Including, I hope, people’s appetite to see things getting done.

    And for all their manoeuvering, timing of elections, not-an-inchery, I truly hope that the DUP get slapped upside their faces.

    As for Sinn Fein, even though I am very far removed from that party and its voters, I am truly increasingly feeling that they have a pertinent case to be answered regarding policing and justice, even if I am angered by the lack of assembly activity that they are as much to blame for as the “other side”.

  • Turgon

    The Raven,
    Fair criticism: it was a flippant remark whilst I was on my way out to church and was a poor comment.

    I suspect, however, if there is an election the fear will be that if the UUP do well that will weaken unionism vs republicanism by showing that people are losing their resolve. If the same happened in the nationalist community at the same time it would be okay. However, both communities will likely feel that if they weaken the others will not and that will damage their side.

    Hence, if there is an election I think it is unlikely that people will vote for the more moderate parties.

    Anyhow fair criticism of my rather poor post.

  • doctor

    “However, I recently ended up at somewhere Sir Reg was speaking.”

    Not questioning your own perspective on Empey’s recent speeches, Raven…but to me people like Durkan and Empey, who are in somewhat of a “opposition” mode to the DUP-Sinn Fein “government”, are usually able to do the stateman-like routine when they’re very much the junior partners to the Adams and Robinsons. Empey is basically a non-factor to what the DUP and Sinn Fein eventually agree (or don’t agree to)so he has the room to be “forthright and reasonable”. This usually seems to decrease rapidly the closer your party actually gets to real power. For the same reason, I thought Sinn Fein and the DUP looked like the energetic ones with ideas a few years back while the SDLP and UUP were in the lead (and looking anemic).

    Btw Turgon, I liked the analogy this time regarding Massie’s Dreadnought. I bought that massive tome about eight years ago, probably reached the half-way point before I became distracted with other things on my reading list, and have been meaning to get back to it ever since then. Of course, now I have start all over again…

  • John K Lund

    If the UUP become an integral part of the Conservative and Unionist party they would be twice the size of any other party at Stormont let alone Westminster. But we need the cahones.

  • truth and justice


    Agree with part of your points the DUP feel they would do well, but I dont think there is any appetite for an election at the end of the day the DUP would still be the largest party even with some loses and nothing will have been gained for ether side if you look at the Fermanagh by election the DUP vote stayed with the party Dromore was more about local problems with Banbridge Council. I idd ask you in a previous thread what did you think about the Conservative and UUP link up is it good or bad for Unionism?

  • Turgon

    tuth and justice,
    A good question and apologies for not answering it at the time.

    It may be good for unionism, I am not sure. I am not an automatic Tory by any means and I am also very aware, as I posted previously, that the Conservatives have tended to be great friends of the union whilst in opposition but often dangerous to it when in government. In addition I have no liking for, nor trust in, Cameron. I think he would do almost anything for power.

    The link up may very well help the UUP at least a bit and in the short term. Ironically of course that would be a good reason for the DUP to go for an election now, before any link is sorted out and hence, before any possible bounce that that might give to the UUP.

  • Bigger Picture


    “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.” ”

    Is there actually anything factually icorrect in the above? and what message would an abstentionist TUV put forward that would make the unionist electorate think that they can better take on republicanism by walking away?

  • Turgon how do you feel about the current group of elected TUV members?

    In my opinion they perhaps haven’t been using their available platform as much as they could – is this a policy to maintain a very tight baseline?

    It seems that unelected members are making more of a public image attempt than elected members – do you regard this as useful – i.e. Ivor McConnell etc..

    How do you rate their effectiveness (councillors) for the Party to date since their move from the DUP to the TUV?

    Will current elected members feel they should be selected for a chance at becoming an MLA?