Don’t expect today to go to plan. The time slot MLAs have to get the unfinished business sorted out is from 12 noon. Nomination of a new First and deputy First Minister is first on the list. When that fails, the Assembly is on borrowed time.
We can be sure that – since this is the last big set piece of the political season for perhaps years to come in Northern Ireland – it’s likely to be well choreographed for maximum effect.
The Economy Minister’s efforts to sort out the RHI payments (opposition MLAs had no sight of the proposal prior to the meeting of the business committee on Friday). The Economy committee will have 2.5 hours to decide before noon.
From the Finance Minister’s remarks, they may let the vote go through on the bedroom tax. But I wouldn’t count on anything. Sinn Fein’s issue is not that they were the first to blink on this occasion, but that, as Eoin O’Malley noted yesterday:
Although Sinn Fein has known about the problems with the Cash for Ash policy for at least a year, it was only at the end of 2016 that it became a fully-fledged crisis. Ongoing revelations made it harder and harder for Sinn Fein to maintain support for Arlene Foster.
It was harder still because the SDLP is now in opposition, and so it could be fully critical of the government. Normally all the major parties were part of the government, and so all the major parties shared the blame.
For the first time, Sinn Fein was being exposed as softer on unionists than the more moderate nationalist SDLP. Sinn Fein had tried to get Foster to stand aside to keep the institutions running. It can reasonably claim to have been pretty patient with the DUP.
So Sinn Fein’s tactical objective for today will be to find ways to obliterate that unfortunate passage of history, and come out looking to their own party like the party who finally put manners the DUP.
Despite the fact that SF hold the Finance, it’s the DUP who, by dint of the fact they have problems they need taken off the public agenda in time for the start of what may to be a very long (by recent NI standards) campaign, who will face the pressure.
Them and an official opposition which has for now at least lost the initiative, whilst the two Government parties try (yet again) to suck all the air out of the game.
Rumours suggest that Brokenshire’s preferred date is 23rd February. If that is a case it will probably mean an intense air war for a couple of weeks, whilst all the parties get their ground war (critical under STV) efforts into place.
For instance, posters are a major element of elections in Northern Ireland. Some old stagers have supplies put aside from last May’s, others, thinking they had five year before the next timed election, had already burned them.
We should have a live blog up and running before 12 today to report the shenanigans and help you keep track.