A snap Assembly election is no way out of the impasse

As a scene set for the Downing St talks, two commentators argue strongly against settling for the superficially attractive option of an early Assembly election. Maurice Hayes’s essay inspired by the South African example is a plea for leadership on both sides. He argues that a realignment of unionism is inevitable.

Many predicted that, in the post-Paisley DUP, the traditionalists and the churchmen would go one way, and the politicians and modernisers another. Eventually, the modernisers will merge in some form with the main elements in the UUP, and the traditionalists will join Jim Allister in Traditional Unionst Voice (TUV). Meantime, the Conservatives will have difficulty in honouring their commitment to run candidates in all 18 northern constituencies if the UUP make electoral pacts with the DUP.

….An early Assembly election, or a total breakdown, can be in nobody’s interests except those who want to see politics fail.

Presumably Maurice believes that the pressures of a snap Assembly election present exactly the wrong conditions for any such realigment to take place. Yet it is precisely such pressure that often forces realignment. He and I remember all too well the volcanic precedents from 1969 to 1975– but we won’t go there just now. To sharpen up my thoughts about this. Right now, there is unionist ferment but no sign of a DUP breakup. It would be a mistake to underestimate them under pressure. They are behaving as if they’re all too aware of the dangers of a display of internal party dissent. Yet so far this discipline has failed to read across into the politics of accommodation. Robin Wilson’s comment of a couple weeks ago is worth reading. He, argues that an election to the structurally sectarian Assembly sets a course to collapse. While I believe this needn’t be so, he makes a powerful case. From his analysis we can infer that the problems are too deep for solution by the latest Downing St circus; the flaws in the Assembly are systemic.

It became an abiding conceit of the peace process that previous efforts to tackle sectarianism, focusing on the more moderate communal and non-sectarian parties, should be replaced by an approach indulging their more militantly ethnic, even paramilitary, rivals. This joint London-Dublin approach replaced the politics of accommodation with the politics of polarisation…

The danger now is that the unfolding crisis leads to emergency assembly elections, with a big vote for the even more fundamentalist ­Traditional Unionist Voice, no new shared government at Stormont – and a growing drumbeat of “dissident” ­republican violence.

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The big problem is, arguments for reform of the system to encourage “ the politics of accommodation” won’t be heard in the present atmosphere , as each grouping will leap to the conclusion that the motives for reform are all about doing down Sinn Fein. This rather makes Robin’s point but where do we go from here? To try again for a deal, surely. Whatever may or may not be patched up, the importance of crossover politics should not be lost. The examples of Catholic-supporting unionists, Protestant nationalists or a centre undefined by either like the Alliance party have been wrongly dismissed or sneered at by the warriors behind the ramparts. In their necessarily fragmented ways, they are among the pathfinders for a new order.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London