Obsessing about vote management is inevitable but shouldn’t distract us from what happens afterwards

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has predictably taken a hammering over his personal choice to vote SDLP next. The Newsletter has helpfully quoted 8 UUP candidates who think otherwise. They can hardly be blamed. Most of them  rely on DUP transfers to  get elected and aren’t expecting SDLP transfers anytime soon. They mortally fear a DUP plump that leaves them high and dry and in some cases, Sinn Fein cosy and warm and elected  instead.

So why did Mike do it?  He’ll speak for himself but to me he’s  trying to address the deep frustration people of all parties and none are feeling  at the vista of deadlock and collapse that suddenly  hit centre stage again last December  just when cautious hopes were raised that it  was fading at last.

So let’s introduce the notion of a little flexibility where we can afford it. If it matters at all, it will figure after the election more than before it, when sooner or later, the talking will start.  Barring an electoral miracle, this is when the UUP and the SDLP will have to return to the abiding question – what are they for?

Forming an opposition after last May’s election was  something the leading  parties felt the could concede  at little cost to themselves. Strongly backed by the two governments it was a significant victory for the idea of greater democratic choice all the same.  Following the precedent of  forming an opposition, more reforms  may become possible, like less resort to the notorious  blocking mechanism  of petitions of concern, as promised in the Fresh Start agreement of December a year ago. (See the Detail’s excellent report on use since 2011).

The significance of petitions  of concern  lies less on their actual use  but in the  threat  to use them and as a display of DUP strength  as the only party able to block alone.   Failure to win fewer than the threshold of 30 seats this time would be quite a blow, perhaps the margin between success and failure.  Fresh Start hopefully stated that most petitions would be followed not by a block but a mere ” take note” motion for debate in the Assembly. Faithful observance should  already have made it more difficult to resist  cross community support for say, same sex marriage by requiring  the DUP  to state the “clear detriment” caused by the passing of the measure.

The  matrix  of the  Stormont  House – Fresh Start agreement   has now failed twice because too many cans were kicked down the road. In spite of  consensus emerging  that the Assembly won’t be revived  at least until after Coghlin has reported, the British government  stay schtum.  Not an intelligent word has emerged from them about the future. Shades of the first six months of the Art 50 “ debate”.

Also available are a second election after three weeks ( futile );  “greenish” direct rule  vaguely threatened if the St Andrew’s Agreement had failed,  (anathema  to the two governments) and  bargain basement, bog-standard  direct rule, with or without a  “transitional Assembly,” as elected on 2 March ( least worst if the parties don’t move to elect an Executive).

Once again Sinn Fein are the challengers in attack mode,  north and south.     The McCabe controversy has “ brought the government to the brink of collapse,” according to the Irish Times and Sinn Fein    inevitably are moving a motion of no confidence and  calling for a full public  inquiry.

In the North they are presenting themselves are the party of progress and open accountability with a longish list. Conor Murphy is still it a leading Sinn Fein strategist if not its nominal northern leader. He made an interesting speech last night about their wider agenda.  Concerned about voter apathy he asked rhetorically, “what’s the point of voting?”

“My initial reaction was, people sitting in a cold cell with a blanket wrapped around them weren’t asking what’s the point.

“Not everybody draws from that, that’s history for a lot of people. So they don’t draw the same personal inspiration from that struggle that I do, so what is the point?

“If you have somebody belonging to you who was injured or hurt or killed as a consequence of British state-sponsored violence or torture in this country, and they are trying to get access to truth and justice, that’s the point.”

He added: Irish language rights which apply in Wales and Scotland; the right of a gay son or daughter to live a normal life , and refuges from abroad to  go to the shops and buy a pint of milk  – that’s the point.”

It may or may not be significant  that he didn’t  mention linking Brexit and the border to a renewed demand for a border poll.

None of these strike me as non-negotiable  but the idea of Arlene Foster standing aside is another matter.  Will Sinn Fein’s little list keep them all going until the Coghlin  reports in six, twelve or more months?

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