And what will follow this ‘whatever you’re having yourself’ #AE17 election?

Allowing for Summer and Christmas holiday’s, this election campaign will run for one fifth of the time the last Executive lasted. Not a world record (I’m sure Italy has done better), but evidence perhaps that some prefer running elections to actually running Northern Ireland.

Post hoc rationalisers blame Mrs Foster for being the ‘wrong sort of DUP leader’: somehow convincing themselves Peter Robinson was better.But his efforts ran to bizarre extreme sports to keep the DUP inside after the PSNI alleged the Provisionals were involved in a high profile assassination.

However, such high energy maintenance is hardly sustainable over the long term.

Jennifer O’Reilly on Tuesday night on Spotlight provided a much calmer and longer perspective of how we got here: in the process drawing on external views of the whole process from some unusually refreshing sources.

Jon Tonge of Liverpool University, someone who has done his homework on NI politics, argues that the DUP lost focus after Arlene Foster swept back to power last May, and never expected SF would collapse Stormont.

On the other hand, David Trimble says the RHI scheme was a pretext for SF to take time out to address a drifting electoral position. That supposes a strategy, when the evidence is that these events seemed to take SF by surprise too.

Eamonn McCann’s reading bears out some of Trimble’s analysis, but goes deeper and is more precise:

The structures in Stormont were sold to rank and file Republicans as an alternative path to a united Ireland. “Abandon armed struggle because we have discovered a different project which will carry you forward” was accepted by the great bulk of the members of Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA.

And so the reason Sinn Fein stayed for so long, to the frustration of so many in the rank and file is that having dropped the traditional Republican idea of ‘armed struggle’ until there’s a united Ireland,  their alternative having now collapsed, what’s their next trick. What’s Sinn Fein’s next trick?

By and large it’s been a case of managing difficult foreground issues and waiting something better to turn up. As Adams noted in regard to Brexit “you always have to never waste a crisis, never waste a difficulty…”

In part that’s because as one of the politics students at Queens noted in the programme:

The parties here they have their strongholds and they know that they are safe in those strongholds and they focus all of their efforts and all their political will towards those strongholds. They don’t try to reach out. There’s no need for them shake up their policies or to progress in any way.

Even though he’s uncomfortable with any radical Jonathan Powell, admits..

I do think there are dangers in the forced coalition system you have in power-sharing, because it leads to a sort of stasis in government: no one’s in opposition, everyone’s in government. It leads to corruption, it leads to staleness of any ideas.

And this young man at the quarter final of the Templeton Cup:

Our country was so desperate to put an end to the conflict we had that we substituted a violent conflict for a political one. And the latter is far better than the former. But both of them seem equally ineffective.

Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood talk separately throughout about wanting a coalition of the willing. But they’re trying to do so in the context of what I would call a “whatever you’re having yourself”.

For all the criticism of Mike Nesbitt for his vote for a nationalist party we can work with down the card strategy, the current umpteenth round of Beggar Thy Neighbour is not working. The trouble is that not even minimal change is possible without a shift at the ballot box.

With some exceptions (like Stephen Nolan’s forensic questioning over the very definition of yesterday’s chip paper, ie the party manifestos), most media output has become a passive processing operation of party press office output, leaving very little room for representing a public interest.

This is a huge problem for those parties that might advocate change, if they get near power. But as The Dissenter notes, that’s a long way over the hill. In fact he thinks their failure to recognise their real situation (and act from that) is acting as a drag on their pitch:

The character of both the UUP and SDLP since May has been that of parties in opposition, but not quite yet an Opposition. Each has been prone to overstretch their place and role. The catastrophic decline of each since 1998, and the messages the electorate are sending need to be respected and better understood. Neither seems to have taken the messages on board.

The key is to first recognise you’re small and therefore incapable (not least in the voters mind) of displacing the present government in one move. He points back to his favourite exemplar in this scenario, Ruth Davidson:

…up against a seemingly impossible challenge that is the Scottish Nationalist Party, has slowly but surely adapted the central messaging of the Conservatives in a Scottish context. In the early days it was about defining the Party. Since then she has from time to time made forensic stabs at the SNP rather than  an outright effort to date to fell the beast.

She has progressed step by assured step: never overstretching; rarely calling for resignation; challenging the policy and purpose of the SNP in Government incisively; and targeting things that matter day to day in the daily lives of the electorate. Yes, progress is slow, but that mountain is huge.

Most of all patience in the first instance has shifted many aspects of Scottish Conservative Party out of its comfort zone, but in ways that have somehow made it seem the natural thing to do and place to be.

The problem in judging any of this clearly is that this was pressed on the opposition against both their will and their own internal expectations (and their dwindling balance sheet).  An opposition of this type would spend time setting out its own terms first, defining the party and its mission.

Next, it would bring huge focus on where its seat gains can come from and then set out their campaigns accordingly. PR STV demands no less. It’s the cornerstone of the Alliance Party’s as well as the DUP’s and Sinn Fein’s approaches to elections.

As I noted before Christmas this has been a poor excuse for an election, and RHI has hardly last the ravages of a four-week campaign. There has, as we have seen, plenty of [melo]drama, but no actual crisis (other than one of internal confidence).

Will SF keep the institutions down? They may be at the mercy of their electorate this time more than most are willing to concede. If they close the proportional gap between themselves and the DUP, they will have something to take a further punt with. Stasis or widening of that gap is a loss.

A tricky change of Taoiseach may be imminent after Enda’s visit to the US for St Patrick’s Day which could telescope the next election, and Sinn Fein bidding to take some part in the next government it will hardly be helpful if they’ve effectively mothballed Stormont.

 

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  • Daragh

    A whole article on the cause of the election, and barely a mention of the RHI scandal is worthy of some sort of prize. There is a problem with the retrospective hat hanging analysis here (and that which was laid out in Spotlight) which is that they don’t actually stack up with events. This is because quite clearly before Christmas Sinn Fein did everything they could to keep Stormont up and running despite being heavily criticised by political opponents, critics and most importantly there own electorate for doing so. They eventually had to listen after Arlene refused the fig leaf of standing aside for a period to allow an investigation.
    These simple facts do not sit with the Sinn Fein are using RHI as an excuse to pull down the house narrative as presented here. Mick you notably have suggested there is no need for an election, but in any other government where approximately 5% of the annual budget had been wasted on a scheme which has a strong stench of corruption in both its design (through the removal of the cost caps in the original bill) and implementation then heads would have rolled. Why should here be any different just because the DUP hold the biggest mandate and top job.
    I note that among the many blogs on Slugger there has never been one that pulls together all the Fracking licensing, land deals, Nama, Red Sky and RHI scandals and asks why are these scandals always focused around one particular party? I can only imagine how many blogs we would be ‘treated’ to if that one party was actually Sinn Fein.

  • burnboilerburn

    What was interesting about the Spotlight programme was how easily and how effortlessly independent commentators were able to put the blame for the current mess squarely at the feet of the DUP. We have an almoat whiplash reaction in these parts to assume one is as bad as the other when it comes to crises. The current mess does not neatly fit into such an analysis because it is demonstrably incorrect.

    A party can only push its constituency so far. That applies to all. And SF have known for some time that their base North and South were becoming increasingly frustrated with the party’s willingness to tolerate the intolerable. This didn’t occur overnight, SF carried on regardless trying to smile while the DUP held a knife stuck deep in its back. But most of that was backstage, SF still managed toput a brave face on the performance when in front of the audience. RHI changed all that when the DUP forgot about the fourth wall and the audience discovered that the script was fake and the lead actor was destroying the show. Downplaying the seriousness of the RHI debacle doesnt sell to a constituency who knows that had it been a Shinner in the seat, skin hair and nails would fly as every party and media agency on the Island screamed to the rafters for warm republican blood.

    SF will not keep the institutions down But they wont and cant go back on stage until the other act has properly adopted their role and agread to stay on script. The problem is that the DUP have never tried to stretch their constituency anything like SF. The DUP are scared to try and reading this piece in the Irish Times, one wonders it they ever will……

    https://www.google.ie/amp/s/www.irishtimes.com/opinion/anti-catholic-bigotry-of-many-in-dup-still-significant-1.2982216%3Fmode%3Damp?client=ms-android-samsung

  • mickfealty

    “approximately 5% of the annual budget had been wasted on a scheme…”

    Walk us through that one if you would?

  • Brian Walker

    Mick, Yes, disappointing that the press relies overmuch on recycling party statements and offering only occasional shafts of insight, nothing systematic. Could this be because so little is available and you can’t make bricks without straw?

    BBC network News nationally decided to drop in last night and this morning. Radio 4’s Today programme was presented party from Enniskillen with more to come next week. A colour piece of tragic reminiscence from the war memorial, interviews with frustrated youth and well delivered republican concrete from Gerry Kelly could have been broadcast with little change anytime over the last 16 years. But perhaps that’s the point. The networks find it so difficult to get off first base for their indifferent and bemused audience .

    At a political association seminar I chaired yesterday Jon Tonge forecast with caveats DUP/SF neck and neck 29./27.

    What next? After the election, terms for getting them back if at all…

  • mickfealty

    I’ve covered plenty on the RHI Daragh. But let’s face it, SF finally (and after a long single minded and single handed resistance to it) called a Public Inquiry on that matter. When that comes out we will have plenty to talk about.

    Short of that public inquiry reporting, tell me how an election deals with RHI?

  • mickfealty

    That’s a net increase of three to SF, which in my book, would justify SF going to the polls if at least only in selfish tactical terms. I’d love to see his research/working out.

    (BTW, that link only works on your PC Brian.)

  • Daragh

    I can’t quite get my head around the logic of on the one hand claiming SF have had ‘a long single minded and single handed resistance’ to a Public Inquiry which implies they initially wanted to sweep the issue under the carpet, while at the same time claim SF are using RHI as an excuse to pull down the institutions. Perhaps you could shed some light on that.
    I am in agreement that an election does not deal with RHI, but I believe this is why SF wanted Arlene to stand aside to allow ‘an investigation’. Had there been agreement to this request I do not think there would be an election, however as she refused to stand aside I think SF had no choice but to call an election and I believe SF were actually caught on the hop by the level of anger amongst the Nationalist grass routes.
    What is absolutely certain is that, consistent with what would happen in other jurisdictions, they could not have continued with the institutions with Arlene in situ given her role as Minister in the scandal and her arrogance in response to perfectly valid questions about her role in the affair.

  • Daragh

    Its a rather simple calculation. I am led to believe that the grant budget is approximately 10bn per annum. The RHI scandal estimates are for approximately £0.5bn overspend which is the equivalent of 5% of our budget. The DUP’s electoral motivated distractions about cost cutting will not recoup the majority of these funds as the RHI applicants have contracts and they have shown that they are prepared to go to court to ensure those contracts are honoured.

  • Donagh

    You let yourself down Mick with the trolling at the beginning of every blog. Kinda hinders serious engagement with the rest of what you have to say.

    “But his efforts ran to bizarre extreme sports to keep the DUP
    inside after the PSNI alleged the Provisionals were involved in a high
    profile assassination.”

    You’re obviously a “post hoc rationalisers” yourself.

  • mickfealty

    Im not so sure I really can make those loose ends tie up. They went into last May’s election with a full picture of Arlene’s record on RHI, and nevertheless backed her as FM. The best I can offer is ‘never waste a good crisis’.

    To be honest, if they get their base out and narrow the gap, to two or three seats on the DUP then ‘job jobbed’ as my English father in law likes to say. Hats off to them, in fact.

  • Donagh

    “I’ve covered plenty on the RHI Daragh.”

    Sorry, but I am actually laughing at that. At the height of the RHI frenzy there wasn’t one mention of it in 20 blogs on the front page of this site.

  • mickfealty

    That’s the figure projected over twenty years. The annual figure is actually 20/30 million pa. Still a lot of muck, in any budget round. But a mere fraction of a per centage point.

  • mickfealty

    When was this exactly?

    Here’s the archives just after the epicentre of the controversy (http://sluggerotoole.com/2016/12/page/2/). There’s a lot more on the previous page.

    Maybe you’re referring to the gap between the last post we did over the holidays (Boxing/St Stephen’s Day) and counting all of the good work Alan did on to the 20 year rule.

    But that would be highly manipulative and misleading.

  • mickfealty

    How else would you describe Robinson’s in/out Executive routine? Or am I misreading your problem with the opening?

  • Msiegnaro

    A very dangerous scenario.

  • Ryan A

    Why would that be dangerous? The same protections would exist, those which are currently abused en-masse by the DUP.

  • Daragh

    The total figure though is equivalent to 5% of the annual budget, so its hardly incorrect to state that. However you could also say the DUP have committed 0.25% of the budget each year for the next 20 years on a scheme that appears to be corrupt in both design and implementation. This is and is likely to remain the biggest ever scandal in the history of NI. It will be interesting to see how this affects people’s voting patterns, because to paraphrase Sophie Long of PUP if it has no affect we are in even more trouble than we know.

  • Msiegnaro

    SF with so much control could hardly be a good thing. Hopefully Unionism can rise up and hold back the tide.

  • mickfealty

    Yes, but that’s also half a working man’s life.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “Wasn’t one mention…”

    Are you having a giraffe?!

  • The Irishman

    Excellent post.

  • Daragh

    There is no loose ends to tie up really. SF were told by the grassroots to get out now or you will pay the penalty at the ballot box for providing another mud guard for yet another DUP financial scandal. To be honest, I still can’t quite believe they ever thought they should stay in despite the scandal. I would agree SF are trying to portray a virtue out of making a decision they were effectively forced to by their electorate.

  • The Irishman

    Could you please elaborate on ‘SF with so much control could hardly be a good thing’.

  • Msiegnaro

    Pushing through a left wing agenda of higher taxes, driving through a UI, glorifying terrorists – that’s enough to start you.

  • The Irishman

    No , it won’t. I would like something with a bit more substance instead of the usual rhetoric.
    What is this left wing agenda?
    How is pushing for a re-united Ireland not a good thing?

  • NMS

    A good summary, Mick. Newton Emerson’s analysis in today’s Irish Times is also worth a read http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/stormont-s-balance-may-be-about-to-get-downgraded-1.2984776

    Eamonn McCann’s analysis struck me as the most pertinent.

    The resurrection of the Assembly is no longer in the interest of Gerry Adams or his party. Their problem is now with a forthcoming UK exit, which leaves Uncle Gerry pleading pitifully for a UKNI veto on the development of future Irish integration within the EU. Irish politicians are, in his eyes, to ignore what is good for their electorate, and to alternatively consider those living in another State. He has correctly analysed that UKexit is the BIG issue. The Assembly is of no use in dealing with that issue.

    The prospect of the elevation to Taoiseach of Dr. Varadaker must fill the Provos with dread. He represents a completely different Ireland, a point carefully analysed by Kevin Cunningham, one which is more likely to see its place within the core as the EU moves rapidly towards “enhanced integration” or a “two-speed Europe if you prefer. http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/gap-between-main-parties-could-grow-under-varadkar-leadership-1.2982156

    The UK, outside of the European Union, moves to an alternative solar system.

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    Don’t be counting your chickens just yet, NMS. Uncle Leo isn’t quite a shoe in and there’s a good chance he’ll have one of the shortest tenures of a Taoiseach ever, even if he wins the leadership contest. FG have been losing votes in rural Ireland and nothing since the last election has indicated that this will change, in fact things have got decisively worse for FG since then if polls are to be believed. Micheal Martin will decide when to pull the plug on this government and it’s worth pointing out that Leo was the former Health Minister ultimately responsible for the current shambles in the south today. He doesn’t fill anyone with dread, believe me

  • Ryan A

    No party is even standing enough candidates to have a majority. Grade A bullcrap.

  • Msiegnaro

    Paying for health care and losing the bloc grant.

  • mickfealty

    They can’t. Which is TI’s point, I think?

  • NMS

    Ciarán, Despite the desperate efforts of the Kenny wing of the party to come up with an alternative, they have to date failed.

    Martin’s position is a lot weaker than you presume. Varadaker belongs to a different generation, 19 years younger than him and almost two generations younger than Adams. If you read the Irish Times article by Kevin Cunningham, he agrees with you that the FF vote is rural & far less educated that those attracted to support a Varadaker led FG.

    In relation to Health, it has been claimed to have been the kiss of death for every politician that I can remember, but has not been.

    However back on subject, Adams and his organisation have no interest in the return of the Assembly. UK exit leaves them adrift, their only policy being to demand that the Irish Government does not act in the interest of its electorate and move towards enhanced integration with the “core” States. This is an issue the other parties will have to face too. Enhanced integration leaves the UK in a separate solar system. Adams at least recognises this.

  • Msiegnaro

    But the threat is there. Any increase in vote is likely to lead for border poll calls.

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    I get where you’re coming from to a certain degree but the last 18 months in politics – locally, nationally and in a global sense – have been such a whirlwind that it’s difficult to hang your hat on anything really. I disagree that SF don’t want to make the Assembly work, if there’s one party who has benefitted most from an up and running (not necessarily working) Assembly, it’s SF

  • Katyusha

    FF will need to call an election while the McCabe Scandal is still fresh in the memory.
    If Varadkar is allowed the opportunity to get his feet under the desk for a considerable period of time he could shore up the vote for Fine Gael. Varadkar would be a popular Taoiseach and FF are in the privelaged position right now of supporting a FG minority government and being able to pull it down at any time of their choosing.

    There is also the SF leadership transition. IF the government is to stand for another eighteen months, both of FF’s principal opponents will have regrouped and have new leadership at the helm. It is better for FF to strike now, not out of a position of their own strength, but from opportunism and striking before their opponents have a chance to find their feet.

  • Katyusha

    Why would the Provos be afraid of Leo? SF campaigned for EU membership for NI, you know, and it’s not like FG voters are going to swing to or transfer to SF, or vice versa. If anyone is going to be afraid of Dr. Varadaker, it surely has to be Fianna Fáil.

    Ireland has been moving to a more European / EU focussed nation for a long, time, there’s nothing new there. It’s illustrated very well by the superb links that Trinity and UCD have with continental universities compared to the astonishing lack of collaboration/communication with Queen’s Belfast despite the latter being only 100mi up the road. QUB looks to GB instead. Metropolitan Ireland is EU-centric it’s in the character of the place now.

    Meanwhile… https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/23/irish-leader-enda-kenny-calls-for-united-ireland-provision-in-brexit-deal

  • Katyusha

    If they could do the first one, it would be a good thing. Unfortunately they don’t have the power, the Tories do.

    The NHS is coming apart at the seams and one of the simple causes of it is that we don’t pay enough for healthcare to maintain the kind of service we expect.

  • Katyusha

    SF advocate rolling out a free-at-point-of-entry healthcare system across all of Ireland.
    Not sure if it’s a good thing or not, but that’s what they intend to do. So you have no need to worry if it’s only SF that is pushing this boat 😉

  • Tochais Siorai

    We all know Martin will pull the plug as he deems fit which is why FG are in a panic to make sure Varadkar or Coveney is in situ instead of the current lame duck when he does.

    As for ‘….Leo was the former Health Minister ultimately responsible for the current shambles in the south today….’ Perhaps a little awareness of the longstanding structural issues facing the Republic’s health service might prove more instructive than pinning the whole shebang on a guy who spent less than 2 years in the job.

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    OK, I’ll be a bit more specific then. What specifically could Leo point to during his tenure as Health Minister that we could acknowledge as something that makes him competent for the role of Taoiseach?

  • burnboilerburn

    I have no time for Leo or his FG blueshirts but be sure, the mess in the health system is down to one party and one individual, thats Fianna Fail and Micheal Martin when he was minister for health. He shut down thousands of beds and when the country was stuffed with cash completely failed to reform and invest.

  • Granni Trixie

    Ideally it sends a message to the DUP that it expects it to change and that it does not trust it to fix RHI problem.

  • Msiegnaro

    How are they going to afford that?

  • Barneyt

    I enjoyed that piece Mick. If somehow SF do overtake the DUP and have an opportunity to present NI with an Irish republican first minister, you’d expect them to take it. It would represent such a sea change that would rattle traditional intransigent unionism to the core. I feel unionism would just not have sufficient wind to reclaim the role which is very symbolic despite parity between fm and dfm. DUP playing deputy to SF? too hard to refuse you’d think. But the DUP comeback may be to maintain the collapse and force protracted direct rule

  • Msiegnaro

    We have too many non tax contributors availing of it.

  • Barneyt

    Cutting in… some are talking about SF securing the largest mandate. The election has surely surfaced that prospect?

  • Barneyt

    But isn’t that the point. It’s joint rule. What does the DUP do with education that SF can’t do with the health portfolio. One as effective or ineffective as other. SF in FM seat does create fear however and change the control perception clearly

  • Msiegnaro

    SF destroyed the transfer policy between primary and secondary education.

  • mickfealty

    Simon Harris, for all his youth seems to have made a half decent start. But we have a more relevant thread for this now.

  • Katyusha

    Fiscal space? Increased taxes in high earners?

    It’s Sinn Féin, they’re supposed to be terrible at finance. But given that we want a European-style comprehensive healthcare system with a US-style tax regime, they aren’t the only ones.

  • mickfealty

    That’s probably on the basis of that Lucid Talk poll, and the 3.3 drop in the DUP scores. Big story, if it happens. But LT’s penultimate poll had them at that last time IIRC. We need more polls to see if there is something to that.

    I’m sceptical because of the number of Green on Green fights, and I’m not getting any huge sense that the SDLP is as vulnerable this time out.

  • mickfealty

    Fascinating stuff. Thanks!!

  • mickfealty

    McCabe is unlikely to be the trigger now. Time’s past for that. The changeover is the tricky bit, and in full technicolor might inadvertently trigger a rift that sinks the government. John Halligan and Finian McGrath are. centre left rather than centre right. For that reason the party may prefer Coveney to Leo.

  • Katyusha

    I agree with you that Coveney might have a better, perhaps more grounded run at the leadership (and I would not be disappointed were he to take it), but I don’t think it would be a good strategic decision for Fine Gael to allow the makeup of the Independent Alliance to influence their leadership contest. FG must select the best leader for the party based on the direction they want to pursue as a party and their own strategic concerns,and if there is an election, they will just have to fight it. This is a decision with which has much longer-term repercussions for them than the lifespan of the current government.

    As for the McCabe saga being the “trigger”, I agree with you that it’s too far gone now; but that is not what I was referring to, I was just suggesting it would be wiser for FF to take on a weakened and tarnished Fine Gael now than a stronger and rejuvenated one in a year-and-a-half’s time. In an case, I don’t think the “trigger” for pulling down the government is the best word, as it would imply that any scandal could bring the government down on its own merits, without the manipulation of the opposition parties. “Pretext” or “excuse” may be better. All Martin needs is opportune timing and a plausible excuse.

  • Ryan A

    And what happens when you no longer have the demographic support to rise up and be top dog? What happens when others & nationalists rise up? Do you expect them to forget how you treated them when you had numbers and show you empathy? We’re a boundary review away from a disaster for Unionism and that’s on existing numbers not accounting for changes.

  • Msiegnaro

    Leave the country, I’ve already made that clear. There’s no way I’ll want to remain in a country that offers to silence Unionism forever.

  • Ryan A

    Well at least your consistent.

  • Msiegnaro

    One would not be welcome here and nor will one be kowtowing to the likes of you.

  • Ryan A

    Likes of me? You know very little about me to determine that. I’m actually broadly pro-union and I despair at the behaviour of Unionists as personally I think they emulate a three year old child as such that they’re a danger to themselves.

    You mean working with other people who might have different opinions to you.

    The days of the one party rule are over. If you wish to pack up and go somewhere else in despair at thought please don’t let me keep you here any longer.

  • Msiegnaro

    Broadly Pro Union? You have been biting on my heels for weeks.