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.


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.

  • Cynic2

    If there’s an election what are we voting for?

    ‘Snap’ might be the right term for breaking the back of the current agreement

  • danielmoran

    BW I don’t know how much credence you give to the poll before xmas which saw Martin McGuiness with an approval rating among Protestants which was only two points less than Robinson, but if it’s accurate, then how do unionists expect to bring their voters out[who haven’t been voting recently]to achieve their aim of preventing SF taking top of poll?.
    And whose idea was it to to have the top positions called First and Deputy First, when in reality they are identical?. This is what has caused this unionist unity drive, which is premised on a lie.

  • Turgon

    I have always been extremely sceptical of all Belfast Telegraph polls. If I remember correctly they had one before the 2005 general election which predicted destruction of the DUP.

    There are two problems: The Belfast Telegraph has a very clear agenda and secondly people notoriously lie in opinion polls here.

    A united party is very likely to get a large vote out but will also probably increase TUV support as some disaffected DUP (and even UUP) types jump ship so much do they mistrust the other half of the partnership. In addition by reducing the fear of vote splitting it could help the TUV.

    In the long term there might be disadvantages for unionism but in the short term I would expect a rise in vote and a reduction in transfer leakage in STV elections.

    As to the first / deputy first minister issue. I am almost certain that was an SDLP invention.

  • Cynic2

    “This is what has caused this unionist unity drive, which is premised on a lie.”

    Except that it isn’t. They keep saying time and time again that the aim was to give the DUP confidence to do the deal with SF knowing that they had the backing of the vast majority of unionism and could see off the right wing.

  • danielmoran

    Cynic2 When exactly have the DUP had the vast majority backing of unionism without including the rightwing?, [which is how they took over as main unionists since 2005]. If The FM/DFM nonsense, enabled the DUP to have that confidence, that shows them in their true colours [as bigots] and not as they would like to be seen.

  • danielmoran

    Msg 3 Turgon. I take your points about people lying to opinion polls,and sceptism about BEL TEL agenda, although,as to the latter, for nationalists, the Tele while claiming impartiality, has been consistently unionist with a small ‘u’.
    It’s possible that SDLP did devise the FM/DFM thing, but it’s hard to see why they in particular saw any gain for them in that , since it wouldn’t , in the foreeable future give them the FM position.

  • OscarTheGrouch

    Out of curiosity are our DUP and SF leaders planning to help out in the Middle East again in the near future….

    I would be interested how exactly they are going to translate this phase into Hebrew and Arabic, ‘now you take a Jezebel a Sodomite and a pederast….’

  • danielmoran

    Turgon, I forgot in response to your reply to my OP, that if there’s a general increase in unionist voter turnout, it’s hard to see the proportionate shares benefitting the TUV and cancelling out the whole point of the pact UUP/DUP. Also, the UUP tory link up is falling apart at the seams.

  • danielmoran

    Clarification; that should have read “not benefitting TUV”

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Elections here are not about breaking an impasse …they are about getting an advantage over rivals and showing strength.
    All elections are TWO elections for the hearts and minds of TWO communities.
    Whatever the individual results at any election….we will have a figure of around 51% for the unionist “family”, 42% of the vote for the “pan nationalist front” and 7% for the so called moderates.
    How the Parties present the election and their own part in having it called is the “key”. Standing tough with SF can actually galvinise relunctant DUP voters who might have considered TUV or UUP.
    Difficult to see any scenario there which will not result in the DUP using a few seats to each of the TUV and UUP (because of distaste at the coalition with SF or recent scandals) . Most likely scenario is a DUP with around 27 to 30 seats….TUV likely to get a couple of seats but handicapped by lack of “names” and UUP gaining back some of the losses from last time.
    Distaste at recent scandals affecting SF are unlikely to be too damaging. More damaging is the perceived lack of talent in one or two ministries (well actually I mean Caitriona Ruane)
    They are likely to come back with around the same number of seats or maybe up to two losses. Which will be picked up by SDLP which will reverse their downward spiral.
    Obviously SF being seen to stand up to DUP will help it deal with “dissidents” and the “dissidents” attempting to take us all back to a place we dont want to go is a further help to SF.

    So an Election will again produce a snap shot of how we see ourselves. No breaking of an impasse. No radical new thinking.

  • danielmoran

    FJH, as regards the SDLP, the open touting of the unionist pact could persuade some soft SDLP support to ‘lend SF their votes in an attempt to counter the unionist united bulk. Since the SDLP has, as Brian Feeney has pointed out, the SDLP have swopped a 50 year old leader for one who is ten years older, causing their image to become older also. I don’t think there’s any way back for the SDLP. They served their purpose.

  • scarecrow

    It looks like an election is on, Eamonn Mallie has just twittered that the talks between MMcG and PR have ended after only a half hour, what ever that tells us? Can’t see a deal being done in that time.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Mr Moran,
    The SDLP STILL serve a purpose.
    In the absence of conventional democracy we have TWO democracys. …one on the unionist side, the other on the republican side.
    And yes nothing will galvinise republicans more than thinking that their position is under attack.

    The “extremes” do better in a crisis.
    I dont think it matters that McDonnell is 60 and Ritchie is 50……point is McDonnell looks like he is capable and Ritchie looks like she could make a decent cup of tea. By the way thats not sexist, a lot of men politicians are also lightweight.

    Personally I get agitated when I see ploticians who are younger than I am….another reason to ignore Ritchie.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Good @ Election.
    Fevered weeks on Slugger O’Toole.

  • danielmoran

    FJH [hope you don’t mind acrynoms] It’s true that McDonnell has more gravitas than durkan which could counter the age difference, and ritchie has blotted her record with that rash move against the UDA linked group, trouble for McDonnell, is he could find himself with no seat if the unionist voters break the habit of a lifetime and pile in behind whichever party’s man to deny SF the FM post.
    Nobody’s fooled though that it would any different if the SDLP were main nats party in line for FM. The unionists would refuse them also, it’s the siege mentality alive and well.

  • Greenflag

    It’s 1920 time again with the Tories playing the orange card . McDonnell is telling it straight . The Tories have never cared about Ireland or it’s longer term political stability .

    Thats never as in NEVER . Irish republicans and nationalists should never lose sight of that fact of our political history . The UCUNF strategy and so called new ‘image’ for ulster unionism and conservatism is revealed for being the old fashioned dyed in the wool sectarianism that it always was and always will be !

  • FitzjamesHorse

    well SDLP have two assembly seats in South Belfast. and without Hanna……McDonnell doubles his profile.
    But it does actually show us the state unionism is in. Any short lived triumphalism over FST and South Belfast in May could be countered by SF actually getting FM post…..so all the time unionist barriers are being broken..once upon a time it was dont let SF in govt……now they might need a pact to get a unionist FM

  • danielmoran

    “once upon a time it was ‘dont let SF in govt….Now they might need a pact to get a unionist FM”

    FHJ You couldn’t make it up as they say. That would be a rich irony, if DUP/UUP managed to get FST anBS back, only to find they’re sunk at Stormont, as it’s at Stormont the DUP is really worried about vote share, they know a westminster seat more or less gives zero influence in London.
    Should be fun to watch.

  • claire

    I think you’re being a touch too glib. If this crisis has proven anything, it’s that both Sinn Fein and DUP are rubbish at power-sharing.

    The one thing they’re both interested in is power-division, not power-sharing, and in excluding everyone else. How could they be anyting else when they have spent their careers opposing it and, in both parties’ cases, their paramilitary associates did all they could to bring down Sunningdale?

    Sinn Fein made a total mess of negotiating the St. Andrews’s Agreement. And, despite all Gerry Adams’s warnings “about not overturning an indigenous agreement, Sinn Fein jumped up and down like cry-babies until the two PMs cam over tonight.

    I laughed at Marty McG saying today that he had spent his life “over the past three years” wotking power-sharing. You don’t do irony, do you Marty?

  • danielmoran

    claire msg 19
    Well, of course both parties are anachronisms [or would be in any normal place] Unfortunately, after the mess made of the previous version by trimble not able to actually lead his party, it was inevitable the govts would tempted to believe in their innocence that the two extreme parties would work, because they had no one sniping from their far side. They like Paisley never thought there would be another on his right. They know differently now after three or four more wasted years.

  • danielmoran

    Turgon. msg 3 yet another conclusion from your suggestion that it was SDLP who got the titles FM/DFM as they are, as i posted, I couldn’t see why they thought that would help them any time soon, but now I think I see it. This was in GFA, which was pre 001 census, and until the result of this in religious breakdown, SDLP were expecting the margins to be much tighter than turned out, maybe they thought FM would be theirs soon. I think the breakdown of census figures on this aspect are no longer reliable, so the votes cast for Unionist or Nationalist parties is a more accurate guide to community breakdown.