Ok, it may be almost three weeks until the ballot boxes open, but we already have a fair idea of the result here.
The DUP and Sinn Fein will probably win 12-14 seats between them and then return – 100 days after the Assembly election – to the unfinished business of forming an Executive. If they don’t cut a deal by around June 29, then the secretary of state (and it may not be the dull and detached James Brokenshire, even if, as seems likely, the Conservatives have a comfortable victory) has three choices: formal direct rule; a few months of fuzzy suspension to facilitate continuing talks; or another election in late September/early October.
Before those talks begin, though, both the DUP and SF will have decided the answer to the key question: do they fear another Assembly election? For instance, if SF has continued to increase their overall vote since March then they may reckon that the chances of bypassing the DUP in terms of Assembly seats and votes (they’re presently one seat and 1,168 votes behind them) are high. Similarly, if the DUP has done further damage to the UUP, as well as adding on more votes, then they may conclude that a second election would take them back over the crucially important 30 seat barrier (although I don’t think it’s possibly to restore the overall unionist majority in the Assembly at this point) and stretch their vote lead over SF, too.
The other calculation they need to make is a little more difficult: how much damage would a period of direct rule do them? A few months ago it looked as though SF was thinking beyond the Assembly and nearing the conclusion that something akin to joint rule between London and Dublin would be more useful to their own agenda. But if Theresa May returns with a solid majority – the sort of majority which allows her to ignore both SF and the DUP – then SF’s influence will diminish; particularly if an early election in the South (which can’t be ruled out with the departure of Enda Kenny on June 2) doesn’t deliver a breakthrough for them.
While the DUP is likely to return with eight MPs it’s equally likely that May will have the sort of majority which renders the DUP irrelevant to her own calculations. Which means that the party wouldn’t have her ear if direct rule returned. In other words, the absence of an Assembly and Executive (and all the power, profile and patronage that go hand-in-hand with it) would damage the DUP.
We haven’t heard much from Peter Robinson lately (although his last-minute intervention in late February helped Foster’s position), but I’m pretty sure that he will be warning of the consequences for the DUP if there isn’t an Assembly, while promoting a strategy to reboot it. He’s brilliant at that sort of thing.
Anyway, where are we with the stalled negotiations? The three most difficult issues: SF is demanding an Irish language act (along with a wider ‘respect’ agenda); it still says it won’t support Arlene Foster until the RHI saga has been sorted; and it wants a commitment to honour the pledges made at both the Stormont House Agreement (2014) and Fresh Start (2015).
In reference to the Irish language act, my friend Newton Emerson summed it up nicely: “There can’t be an assembly without an act. There can’t be an act without an Assembly.” He’s right: which makes me think that an act (albeit embracing Ulster-Scots and other cultural elements important to both sides) is more likely than not.
But the DUP will not budge on that, or on any other issue, if SF still insists that it won’t have Foster as first minister. So, another crucial question: is an Irish language act a big enough prize for SF to find a compromise for Foster? Let’s be honest, why bother to talk about anything at all if a compromise on that issue isn’t even on their radar?
My hunch – and that’s all it is – remains that SF could find a compromise easily enough. They know that Foster can’t stand aside for months on end; and they know, too, that she could just as easily make a public statement that she would stand down as first minister with immediate effect if the inquiry reaches a damning conclusion about her.
The blunt reality, of course, is that if SF isn’t prepared to budge on Foster then it’s a pretty safe conclusion that they don’t care if the Assembly/Executive is rebooted. So it might be a good idea if the answer to that question was the first thing to be agreed when the negotiations begin again around June 12.
Yet both parties need to be extraordinarily careful that they don’t grind each other down to the point at which compromise on any issue becomes impossible. They can blame each other as much as they like for bad faith – and, to be honest, there has been enormous bad faith from both sides since 2003 – but they need to remember that the deal they struck at St Andrews (and in subsequent deals) was to govern together.
There’s likely going to be a Conservative government with a sizeable majority and a minimal interest in Northern Ireland – they have much bigger fish to fry. The DUP and SF need to decide if they can create a coherent, consensual government to ensure Northern Ireland’s voice is properly heard and represented at local level. If they can’t do that, then maybe they need to call it a day and close the Assembly down once and for all. We couldn’t be much worse off than we are now.