Peter Robinson- that’s the DUP Leader, not First Minister…has certainly courted controversy with his Ulster Hall speech calling for an end to the current legislative process in the Assembly. His speech is best interpreted as the start of a Westminster election campaign and actually fits in quite neatly with the appointment of the hardliner’s hardliner, Nelson McCausland, to the DCAL Ministry, who has excelled to date at his brief of seeking to annoy themmuns and rally the doubters and those who’ve already left the camp for the promise of Traditional Ulster.
Consider the numbers involved in Peter’s proposals: 65% of the Assembly needed to pass legislation works out at 70.2. That would mean the ‘Unionist’ and ‘Other’ bloc would require just 7 nationalist MLAs to push through legislation.
Of course, some may argue, the same goes for nationalists. But let’s look at those numbers. The ‘Nationalist’ and ‘Other’ bloc would require 17 unionist MLAs to push through legislation, a considerable difference both in simple numbers and in the percentage those ‘dissenters’ would represent of the nationalist and unionist blocs. In the case of nationalists, the dissenting camp would constitute a mere 15% of the nationalist bloc, whereas the 17 prospective dissenting unionists would make up some 31% of designated unionists.
These numbers are important because Peter Robinson’s proposals indicate a degree of long-term planning which makes a lot of sense for unionism. When you consider that a reduction of the number of MLAs has been on the table for quite a while (from the current 108 to possibly 72 or 90) it is worth noting that this would significantly reduce the number of nationalist ‘dissenters’ required to allow a majority unionist administration to govern.
In the week that Fianna Fail landed in the heart of an SDLP area to make further soundings about crossing the Cooley mountains and in the process delivered another crushing blow to the credibility of the SDLP, Robinson’s proposals give hope to a beleagured SDLP party whose leader is already on record of floating (then retreating hastily from) similar proposals. In the event of a three-way division in the nationalist vote in the north, the Robinson scenario would enable unionism to pick off the weakest strand within nationalism as a potential coalition partner, an option not available to the combined nationalist parties given that the number of ‘dissenting’ unionist MLAs required to join a nationalist-inspired coalition would involve more than 30% of the electorate representatives within unionism.
Of course, nationalists know what Peter Robinson’s proposals are about, hence the swift dismissal of the proposal by Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. But in terms of providing the DUP with a platform to take on the TUV and argue for the continuance of a devolution with the ‘prospect’ of marginalising Sinn Fein, the proposal does at least provide the DUP with something to take to the heartlands.