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.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty