Increasingly, neither the UUP nor the SDLP seem likely to opt for Opposition

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

Well, here we are, halfway through the campaign.

It hasn’t been exciting so far — which suits the DUP and Sinn Fein very nicely, because boring campaigns mostly favour the incumbents. But two weeks is still a long time: time enough for someone to drop an enormous clanger, or for an “Events, dear boy, events,” moment to knock all predictions and calculations into a cocked hat.

The UTV debate last Wednesday, the first big set piece, was dull. Nesbitt, McGuinness, Foster, Ford and Eastwood played it safe all they way through, not wanting to leave any hostages to fortune. No knockout blows were landed and no damage done.

But nor was there the sort of ‘water cooler moment’ that was going to have people talking the next day: and, as Sam McBride noted in the News Letter on Friday, only around 8% of the electorate actually watched the programme, with about a third of them switching channels before the end.

The SDLP has been dogged by what must be described as the ‘West Tyrone problem,’ with over 20 resignations, independent candidates and talk of a new party being formed.

In the space of two days Colum Eastwood and Fearghal McKinney gave contradictory responses to the “will you go into opposition” question, while seat losses look possible in South Belfast, West Tyrone, Foyle and West Belfast. Eastwood needs a good election, because his leadership campaign was built around being able to deliver a better result that Alasdair McDonnell.

The UUP has had a good campaign so far and could, on a good day, win 20 seats—up four on 2011. A few weeks ago I wrote that the party still had a problem with their departure from the Executive last August, pending clarity on the report that said the IRA still existed and that the Army Council had influence over Sinn Fein. Nesbitt seems to have cleared that hurdle, telling Sam McBride, “We have no red lines and I was careful not to hang us on a hook like no guns, no government. We’ve learnt that lesson.”

I’m pretty sure the DUP and TUV will use those words against him in the next two weeks, accusing him of cynicism and opportunism. But in using them — and yes, it carries risks — he has made it just that little bit easier to take the party back into the Executive: and the DUP and Sinn Fein quite like the idea of the UUP and SDLP in the Executive, because it allows them to share out the blame when things go wrong.

Also, I think both Nesbitt and Eastwood have realised that, with no more elections until 2019, three years is a very long time to be stuck in opposition. Yet they need to remember that if they don’t opt for opposition before June 30 then they won’t be able to form it at all in the next mandate. Which is why both parties are talking about what they want from the next Executive, because I think both want to be part of it.

Ukip had a bad week, with David McNarry — who is usually pretty surefooted in interviews — having to back down on deporting immigrants who got a parking ticket and then backtracking on his claims that Durham University had done research on reducing hospital waiting lists for the party.

Bearing in mind that the party starts with a low base here and that on the issue of the EU both the TUV and DUP are in the Leave camp, it’s unlikely that his comments will have done catastrophic damage to its electoral prospects.

Meanwhile, the TUV has clearly been busy on the doorsteps, although it still seems to be very much a one-man-band. Interestingly, Jim Allister has admitted, when asked if remaining the sole TUV MLA was acceptable, “No, it wouldn’t be a success. Success has to be more than one.”

As it stands — and a lot will depend on transfers — it’s beginning to look as though Jim will have company.

Sinn Fein’s campaign is as efficient as ever — even to the extent of canvassing in North Down for the first time — but it doesn’t look as though it’s going to deliver much in the way of extra seats.

Alliance has an outside chance of three seats in East Belfast and two in South Belfast, which explains the very obvious spring in their step at the moment. Both those seats are also particularly interesting, because a potential shredding of the unionist vote and transfer mess (there are 17 unionist candidates) poses potential problems for the UUP’s two remaining Assembly seats in Belfast.

The DUP’s campaign hasn’t really taken off yet. That said, they are quietly confident of winning 34/35 seats, comfortably ahead of Sinn Fein and well ahead of the UUP.

Yet they don’t seem to be as confident and cocky as they were in the 2007 and 2011 elections. It’s not that they fear damage from the other unionist parties as much as they sense that elements of their core support are becoming a little bored with the “only the DUP” mantra.

In 17 days time, voters—or those who can be bothered—will make their call. Here’s mine: the five big parties will come back in much the same proportions as they have now, they’ll all be in the Executive, there won’t be an Opposition and we’ll still rely on the so-called ‘naughty corner’ to be a thorn in their collective flesh. Hmm.