The cynically engineered electoral competition between Sinn Féin and the DUP ratcheted their votes up together, then down together as despairing voters deserted them in the Alliance surge, until the implosion of the DUP over Brexit suddenly left Sinn Féin polling 9 percentage points ahead.
This is the “safety margin” for the nationalist electorate – the extent to which Sinn Féin can be punished for failure without putting unionists back in the lead. Although republicans will never adopt the SDLP slogan of “making Northern Ireland work”, they have been given a tremendous incentive to make Stormont work.
Beyond Conor Murphy and Gerry Kelly, Sinn Féin has drifted into controlled co-option of loyal but relatively unknown junior figures. That “safety margin” may allow a slowly expanding SDLP to build on its gains from December 2019.
Regarding the DUP, Newton notes that its previous out and out oppositional rhetoric is changing almost before our eyes…
How do you make the protocol work, then go to the polls telling people this is their chance to scrap it?
Semantic distinctions are being carefully noted. Calling for the protocol’s abolition is hopeless belligerence. Sounding just tough enough, while welcoming whatever compromise might be offered, is the only way forward.
In his leadership campaign against Poots last month, Donaldson vowed to “vigorously oppose the protocol both in principle and in practice” and to boycott North-South institutions even if this threatened to collapse devolution.
This week, on becoming DUP leader, he said “I will play my part to bring stability” if the UK and EU “recognise” and “deal with” the “flaws in the protocol”.
That’s pretty much now where everyone else is (and where Arlene was in the first couple of weeks in January). It’s fate lies in the willingness (or otherwise) to put his trust in the hands of the British Prime Minister and the joint committee.
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