May’s #AE16 could be a precursor to a more open and competitive contest in 2020…

Apart from in West Belfast, there’s not currently much in the ‘big politics’ column for the elections in May. The Lucid Talk figures are remarkably stable (it’s a relatively stable methodology), which doesn’t suggest there’s any kind of democratic tumult.

In unionism, there’s speculation about who’ll get Basil McCrea’s seat, his former partner, John McCallister looks set to be squeezed out in a tough three-way battle for two Unionist quotas in South Down, and in East Londonderry Claire Sugden faces a tough battle too.

In Foyle, Martin McGuinness comes home [to retire? – Ed], but despite Raymond McCartney’s “goal of returning three MLAs” without a political wind there, there’s not the numbers. Upper Bann looks a better bet for covering their predicted loss in FST.

As for the efforts to create something from not a lot Mark Devenport notes how on the political indolenceof the last term, is being concluded with a rush to get a lot of announcements out:

you could argue that the urgent spate of law making and decision taking is just the natural consequence of a power-sharing administration which, for much of last year, found itself in a logjam.

It took the Fresh Start agreement in November to get the machinery moving, so this spring was always going to look this way.

The more world-weary, however, will note that now ministers are no longer doing the Hokey Cokey, their efforts to reconnect with the public involve taking the executive out and about to, coincidentally, the two constituencies where the first and deputy first ministers happen to be standing for election.

From the end of the month when the veil of what is known in the jargon as “purdah” (pre-election period) is drawn down, Stormont ministers will remain in office.

However, as the advice to civil servants puts it, it is “customary for ministers to exercise discretion during the election period in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character”.

In addition, departments are told not to compete with the candidates for publicity, so we can soon expect a pause in the high-profile announcements.

Since this largely concerns Ministers just doing their jobs (rather than political matters per se), it’s very hard to see these announcements having more than a marginal effect on the outcome of the election.

But if the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists and others can raise interest in policy areas neglected by the Executive heretofore through their campaigns, we might allow for some drama when it comes to the setting a Programme for Government. And a place called Opposition?

Given the lack of time between now and the election, that’s a tall order. Not least because the media in Northern Ireland have not been inclined (and in some cases not been resourced) to take policy seriously as it ought.

With the UUP leadership settling into a steady growth curve, and a young (untested) SDLP leader who makes his rivals in (northern) Sinn Fein look just that little bit older May could be a precursor to a more open and competitive contest in 2020.