In the DUP manifesto,, buzz phrases like better service delivery and the modernisation of government are invoked in support of the business- like appeal of Arlene Foster the party is relying on at the outset of their campaign. There is a marked lack of “shared future” and united community rhetoric. At the same time unionist/loyalist tunes while clearly present are relatively muted.
Whatever the claims and counterclaims of the short campaign there’s little doubt that the DUP and Sinn Fein will be returned to the leading roles, with the minority parties still expected to win enough Assembly seats to occupy one Executive post each. The appeal of opposition may grow stronger again later as the Assembly downsizes in 2021.
In response to public pressure and the low esteem in which the parties have been held, a significant shift of emphasis is promised, away from sharing out the spoils of office first, to agreeing what to do before the posts are filled.
Behind the scenes there are cautious hopes that after the election a new programme for government based on real outcomes can be quickly agreed. The Fresh Start agreement gives them a fortnight after the election to do the deal – this time in advance of sharing out the ministerial posts. Will Sinn Fein have the confidence to take the new Economy portfolio to complement the DUP on Finance?
Well up the agenda for after the elections will be evidence of agreement between the parties of how to avoid another clash over welfare and the budget, as they pledged to do in Fresh Start. Instead of discussing this before the voters, the parties have opted to airbrush the stand-off out of existence. That’s one way of dealing with it. However the conduct of the Executive will be closely monitored by the two governments and notably HM Treasury, to prevent a repeat of last year’s near-breakdown .
The DUP do the usual thing of promising more spending, delivering “50,000 new jobs”, relying on asset sales, some new borrowing and by implication, Treasury flexibility. Once again they refuse to raise extra revenue. They boast of “ NI household taxes the lowest in the UK,” holding down student tuition fees and inevitably –in view of the huge controversy over new water charges in the Republic with SF at the forefront – they will “defer water charges to the next Assembly term.” They can only hope that low inflation will keep the scale of inevitable future cuts within bounds.
Indeed rates reduction for small business will continue but will be agreed locally by the new councils. These concessions will run alongside the projected cut in corporation tax to 12.5%. The quid pro quo from business would be their contributions to a beefed up Investment Fund for social and affordable housing, energy efficiency and renewables, telecommunications networks and urban regeneration.
With not the slightest sense of irony for a party committed to Brexit, the DUP reports that “discussions have been ongoing about leveraging in further finance from the European Investment Fund with the aim of creating a £1 billion fund to support the private sector in financing schemes”.
Cutting pensioner benefits has no more appeal here than in GB.
Predictably Health is to be the big winner. Having already announced the scrapping of the Health board system, the hand of Simon Hamilton is visible in an extra £1 billion on health with targets for more staff, falling waiting lists and better co-ordinated social care.
In Education there will be no major structural changes. Academic election and the sectarian fault lines remain by cross party consent, whatever the polls say. Schools would have greater if unspecified spending autonomy. No hint here of closing done tow our of the four education training establishments which produce a surplus of teachers.
The DUP would be delighted to spend £500m pledged from the UK government over the next decade on sharing between schools rather than integration. Sinn Fein will veto the DUP proposal to abolish of the Catholic Teacher Training Certificate and an end to the Article 71 exemption for teaching from Fair Employment .
On ending paramilitarism which is the subject of the Alderdice panel report due next month the DUP delinks the two parts of the brief, of ending paramilitarism and developing “ stronger communities”. The report is about how the two can be aligned and is about more than spending money . But for now the DUP don’t want to go there.
There is similar reticence on dealing with the past and no obvious advance since last November.
A plan on dealing with the past was the one element that eluded the Fresh Start Agreement but the DUP believes substantial consensus was reached. The DUP believes that the Draft Bill should be published. Victims should be allowed to see what is on offer and provide the opportunity for them to give their opinions.
And a single sentence:
The DUP supports new legislation for a fresh start on the how parades and protests are dealt with in Northern Ireland.
We are all ears for more.
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