Alliance P&J and Westminster

David Ford the Alliance leader has two articles in the News Letter today: On the topic of taking the Justice ministry:

“There are real issues about ensuring that, whoever is Justice Minister, difficult decisions can be taken.

Look at what’s happening to education at the moment.

We need to ensure that any structures which would see justice devolved don’t get held up on the kind of inter-party fighting which is currently meaning that nine and 10-year-old children are suffering and not sure what the way ahead is for them.”“I think it’s absolutely vital that before there would be any question of devolving justice we must ensure that whoever is Justice Minister has the power to take difficult decisions and deal with awkward issues as they arise – even if other people aren’t terribly happy about it.

It would be absolutely inconceivable to have difficult justice issues held up because of the kind of row that we’ve seen over everything from rural planning to education to the national sports stadium.”

And, he adds: “I can assure your readers that there is no question of any Alliance person acting as a puppet.

A year ago, that was what was on offer – the opportunity to be a puppet – and we made it fairly clear then that we would not be providing a puppet.”

P&J will not be like Education in that the reason for the education problem is centrally the legal guarantee which the DUP received at St Andrews on which they will not move combined with Ruane’s complete refusal to accept that she cannot get round it: such a situation is unlikely over P&J for the simple reason that there is no comparable legal guarantee and of course it is unlikely that any possible Alliance P&J minister would behave in the same manner as Ruane.

The rows over the Maze, rural planning and such like are, however, a little more difficult to avoid. In part they would depend on how autonomous the Alliance Party manages to make the P&J minister and indeed how autonomous Sinn Fein and the DUP allow him or her to be. Ford’s comments above are probably one salvo in trying to ensure maximum autonomy. However, no amount of autonomy will avoid endless rows within the executive and the mutual veto although it can be bypassed for very minor things and also does not prevent negative action (stopping things like the 11 plus) it does function on any positive new ideas which Alliance might bring forward.

Alliance is of course likely to want to bring forward new plans to show how good the minister is at his / her job. If any of the minister’s proposals end up coming before the assembly for approval there is the danger that they will again be defeated by the mutual veto. Also many supposedly middle of the road or compromise suggestions could well end up antagonising both sides and hence, be thrown out by both unionists and nationalsists.

There may well be some things which a putative Alliance minister could do without reference to the rest of the executive or the assembly. However, as I mentioned above those would often be negative actions. In addition if the minister acts without reference to anyone else they are in danger of them being accused of exercising their power in an arbitrary fashion: something which Alliance have previously criticised the other parties for doing.

There is of course the additional problem that Alliance has made much of its opposition status and yet taking a ministry, especially in the circumstances of being gifted it by SF and the DUP, does somewhat undermine their oppositional credentials. Considering how Alliance will have obtained this ministry they will surely have much less credibility as an opposition than the UUP and SDLP currently have.

In light of all that one might suggest that Alliance would be wiser to stay out of the P&J ministry. However, in Ford’s other article he talks up his electoral chances and according to the News Letter: “Mr Ford says that he believed the next election will see marked differences, with voters backing politicians who have delivered rather than ‘flag-wavers’.” For Ford to refuse Alliance taking P&J would sit very poorly with an electoral strategy of “delivery.”

At the moment then it seems likely that Alliance will take the P&J ministry provided they can get a remotely reasonable deal (incidentally I suspect it will have to be Ford to leave Long open to run for East Belfast: of which more later). They seem to calculate that this is the best option for them and in view of Ford’s comments on his party’s electoral chances he seems to think that that will maximise their future vote. However, this is by no means clear. As mentioned earlier all the parties other than the DUP and SF have repeatedly complained about the executive and tried to portray themselves as in opposition: in part to tap into the NI public’s dissatisfaction regarding Stormont and in part to tap into the general disillusionment with politics in the wake of the expenses and double jobbing scandals. Naomi Long has already mildly shot herself in the foot by becoming Lord Mayor at the same time as being an MLA and if Ford adds being a part of the executive to Long’s bit of double jobbing that may do Alliance a little harm: not much but it might be enough to invalidate Ford’s pretensions to taking Westminster seats.

Ford claims “I think for the first time in several Westminster elections, we’re now seriously in contention in a number of constituencies and that’s a sign of the general upswing in Alliance generally, as much as it is about splits within unionism.

Based on European results, we are, at the very least, in serious contention in North Down and East Belfast.”

His optimism on Alliance’s vote stems from their “.. second best ever vote in a European election. Our vote was up compared to the Assembly election two years ago and recent experience has been that we have done significantly worse in European elections than our general run in the polls or in other elections.” However, the very low turn out is more likely to have helped than hindered Alliance’s vote this time and the only way in which Alliance can have a chance in either East Belfast or North Down is if there is major unionist vote splitting.

East Belfast could fall to Long especially if the DUP run someone other than Robinson (as seems likely), if the UUP run someone other than Empey and if the TUV run a good candidate. That is a possible option but would require each of the pieces of Alliance’s jigsaw to fall into place. In addition during any campaign Long would be very vulnerable to the multi jobbing jibe.

North Down is also a possibility but again that would essentially depend on all three unionist parties running a good candidate and Sylvia Hermon running. Hermon running as an independent would, however, be likely to attract a considerable number of Alliance votes and as such an Alliance victory seems less likely. Equally if Alliance could capture North Down it is possible with North Down’s tendency to back non mainstream candidates that Alliance could then hold the seat for more than one election.

Overall then Alliance does stand on the brink of some modest success: in the P&J ministry and possibly in future Westminster elections. However, in all this they are in danger: they will only gain P&J if the DUP (and SF) allow them and will only gain in Westminster if the unionist vote shreds. Such potential for success does somewhat reinforce the impression that Alliance are in essence unionist-lite.

A last thought: is it possible that Robinson will refuse to give in to any of Ford’s demands on the P&J ministry in order to ensure that it is not devolved? That would prevent him from having to face the backlash from the TUV (and UUP) and would also provide semi plausible deniability of responsibility allowing him to tell the British government and SF that he had not reneged on any commitments he may or may not have given. Just a thought?

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.