Let me begin with a question I’m asked a few times every day: “Is there any point voting in this election. Will it make any difference?”
Well, if you voted for the DUP and Sinn Fein (or any other party) last time and still support them, then yes, your vote could make a difference. If you voted for a party last time and now believe it has let you down, then switching your vote could make a difference. If you didn’t vote last time, voting this time could make a difference. If you voted last time and don’t vote this time, it will make a difference.
If you believe that the DUP/SF will never be able to work well together, voting for a combination of other parties could make a difference. The DUP and Sinn Fein became the two largest parties because tens of thousands of people who used to vote for the UUP (and some smaller unionist parties) and SDLP switched to them. So yes, on March 2 your vote could make a difference.
Another question I’m asked every day – by supporters of all parties – is: “Will Arlene Foster take a really damaging hit?” To be honest, I don’t know. If this election were about the stupidity, ineptitude and monumental dog’s dinner that lies at the heart of the RHI saga – a good old-fashioned saga about how not to run a scheme, followed by a second saga of mishandling and buck-passing – then the DUP would have a major problem. Indeed, if Sinn Fein had collapsed the Executive on that issue alone and stuck to that issue, Foster might not even be leader of the DUP at this point.
Instead, we’re back to the usual old us-and-them election: and that suits the DUP very nicely. Foster is still well liked across unionism. She is regarded as tough. And even though there is obvious concern about RHI, there is now a sense within unionism that Sinn Fein has turned this election into a personal agenda, hoping to exploit potential divisions and weaknesses within unionism.
My hunch is that if unionists are forced into making a choice about which party is best able to stand up to Sinn Fein, they’ll stick with the DUP – albeit in lesser numbers and without any particular enthusiasm.
What it looks like at the moment is that Sinn Fein crashed the institutions for three main reasons: they sniffed discomfort for the DUP and decided to exploit it (hoping to damage the SDLP in the process); their core vote was increasingly fed up with the one-sided nature of the Foster/McGuinness relationship; they reckoned that a post-election talks process could deliver an Irish Language Act and a few other issues on their agenda. In other words – and this is something that the other parties have now acknowledged – Sinn Fein has moved from DUP departmental incompetence over RHI and on to the usual ‘dreary steeples’ territory. That, I think, may turn out to have been a huge tactical error for them. They muddied their own water.
If that remains the perception within unionism, then it’s more likely than not that there won’t be a significant enough swing against the DUP to make a difference. And that raises problems for the UUP. It’s one thing to run a campaign against what looks like DUP incompetence, venality, abuse of power and furtiveness; quite another to try and convince the electorate that the UUP can cut a better deal with Sinn Fein, let alone address the other issues Sinn Fein has now placed on the post-talks agenda.
The DUP will play the, ‘What would you do differently, Mike?’ card; along with the, ‘Stop Gerry’s puppet becoming first minister,’ card. Arlene will keep peddling the, ‘Yes, things could have been done much better re RHI and I do regret that,’ line. Michelle will trot out the, ‘No return to the status quo,’ mantra. And every day will bring another spat between the DUP and Sinn Fein about what happens after March 2 and who’s to blame for forcing an election in the first place. In other words, it’s the same sort of election we had in 2007/11/15: the sort of election that suits the two big parties.
It’s only the UUP and SDLP who can really shake things up this time. But that means Mike and Colum have to convince an awful lot of people (particularly people who didn’t vote last time) that they were serious about the “Vote Colum, you get Mike; Vote Mike, you get Colum” routine last October. In fairness, neither of them anticipated an election this early; which means that they have to be very radical, very bold, very quickly, if they’ve any chance of eating into the huge leads the DUP and Sinn Fein have over them. But one thing we have learned from elections over the past five years is that boldness, radicalism and daring can deliver election upsets.
At this point, halfway through the election, the odds and circumstances are stacked in favour of the DUP and Sinn Fein. But there is real anger in the air and a palpable annoyance – on all sides and none – about an early election. If the UUP/SDLP, along with the smaller parties, can tap into that anger then an upset is possible: and, to be honest, an upset would be no bad thing. As Margaret Thatcher noted in the spring of 1979: “People who don’t normally vote will return to the polling station if they believe they will, finally, find themselves on the winning side afterwards.”
There’s the challenge for Mike, Colum, Naomi, Steven, Jim, Eamonn and the rest of the smaller parties. And a challenge, too, for non-voters.