Opposition parties must take this chance to rattle DUP and Sinn Fein

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

Well, with the drop in Assembly seats from 108 to 90 how are we to judge party success on Friday?

I only ask, because there will be a temptation for the parties to try and hide any damage by saying: “Bear in mind, though, seat reduction meant we were losing some seats anyway.”

By my own calculations (and yes, it’s not an exact science) I reckon that had the last Assembly election been based on 90 seats – and assuming the same turnout – the results would have been: DUP 33/SF 23/UUP 13/SDLP 10/Alliance 8. So, anything above or below those figures is what we need to be watching.

What is harder to calculate, let alone guess, is the scale of any damage to the DUP. They have prepared themselves for a hit of some sort; although they do seem to think that more of their own disgruntled voters will stay at home rather than jump in significant numbers to either the UUP or TUV (which is bad news for both Nesbitt and Allister).

One senior figure told me: “The difference between DUP with 31 and DUP with 26 could be a very small number of votes.” Mind you, the very fact he said 31 suggested that’s their own benchmark for success. They’d be happy with that: a small hit and still above the 30 they need to deploy the petition of concern on their own.

That said, if they fall to 26/27 territory that will raise very difficult questions about Foster’s leadership; particularly if it is accompanied by the overall number of unionist MLAs failing to represent a majority in the Assembly. A number of DUP candidates and election workers have admitted to me that Foster handled the RHI saga very badly and “forced us into an election she could easily have avoided.’ About eight or nine DUP MLAs – along with their office staff – could find themselves unemployed on March 3. That figure could rise by another three or four if the DUP has a bad day. That’s a lot of very unhappy former supporters; and, as the UUP discovered between 2001 and 2007, unhappy former supporters can inflict a lot of internal damage. Put bluntly: they will blame her for their loss and consequent unemployment.

This election also presents an enormous challenge for the UUP. It did much worse than was expected last May, so Nesbitt will be hoping to regain some traction. Let’s face it if the UUP can’t exploit the DUP’s problems on Thursday and add on votes and seats, then it’s hard to imagine when they’ll ever be able to do it. If the party falls below 13 – especially if their votes have fallen, too –then that’s a big, big problem for Nesbitt. His comments about SDLP transfers (which, in fairness, I thought were sensible, but shouldn’t have been bounced on the party during an interview with Mark Carruthers) will be cited as the reason for any perceived failure to maximise and recover. At this point the party will be worried – or should be – that most guesstimates have them around 11/12.

Jim Allister will hold on very handsomely; and there is a reasonable chance – better than last time, I think – of another TUV candidate winning. I also think that Claire Sugden – standing as an independent unionist – will hold on. But I still think that there’s a possibility that unionists will fail to win – for the first time ever in NI’s history – an overall majority in a local Parliament/Assembly. And that, as I noted in a piece in Thursday’s News Letter, will raise a whole raft of other questions for unionism and the unionist parties.

The SDLP has a problem, too. It needs to show signs of progress, yet the odds seem stacked against it. It’s Sinn Fein which has proved itself capable of setting the pace in terms of the equality/respect/Irish language agenda; and Sinn Fein which says it can hold ‘DUP arrogance’ in check. The reaction of many UUP candidates to Nesbitt’s transfer comments also exposed a side of the UUP which made many in the SDLP feel uncomfortable; and that, in turn, makes the ‘Vote Colum and you get Mike,’ a much harder sell than originally anticipated. Eastwood needs to get above 10 to avoid yet another internal crisis and probable leadership challenge.

The biggest test of all, though, will be for Sinn Fein. It seems unlikely that they will eclipse the DUP (unless, of course, there is a DUP meltdown), so the best they can hope for is much the same result as last time. OK, there will be new negotiations, but I really don’t see how – given the level of mutual contempt that now exists between the parties – Foster and O’Neill could do anything other than build yet another paper life raft to keep them afloat for another few months. Unless, of course, as I wrote a few weeks ago, Sinn Fein is now thinking beyond the need for an Assembly: because, if that’s what they are thinking, then all political/institutional bets are off.

When the election was called I wrote that I’d be, ‘very surprised if the DUP and Sinn Fein don’t come back as the top dogs’. I still think that. But – and it’s an important but – change tends to manifest itself on polling day rather than in opinion polls. So, if the UUP, SDLP and Alliance don’t make something resembling an electoral breakthrough on Thursday they will face huge challenges about their existence and relevance. Personally, I don’t think political progress is possible unless there’s a massive electoral surprise on Thursday: the sort of surprise that shakes the DUP and Sinn Fein to their very roots.