SF isn’t aiming for First Minister this time – it has another goal

Gregory Campbell
Gregory Campbell

Judging by what has passed for an election campaign over the last three weeks, casual observers are likely to think that the real issue at stake in this election is whether Arlene Foster or Martin McGuinness emerges as First Minister in a week’s time.

In fact, that is probably one of the most unlikely outcomes to feature in these pages a week from today.

Another more technical threshold is likely to be exercising the minds of Sinn Fein strategists in the final days of the campaign. Unlike the symbolic victory of getting to be First Minister, this electoral victory actually carries with it real political power, and it is much more achievable.

In the last Assembly election a lot of the campaigning – mostly from the DUP, though also from Sinn Fein – was, just as now, about the possibility of a republican First Minister.

But there were rumours at the time that Sinn Fein didn’t think it could unseat the DUP and was actually more focused on getting 30 MLAs returned. That is the number of MLAs’ signatures required to table a petition of concern.

Once a petition of concern has been tabled, it means that there must be a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists in favour of any motion or legislative proposal.

And, given that any party with 30 MLAs also represents a majority within unionism and nationalism respectively, that means that in effect any party able to single-handedly table a petition of concern can effectively veto any Assembly business of which it disapproves.

In 2011, Sinn Fein fell just one short of that number and therefore could only table petitions of concern where it could persuade at least one other MLA – generally from the SDLP – to sign the document.

That meant, for instance, that although Sinn Fein has a veto at the Executive table the party found itself powerless to block legislation – including Jim Allister’s Special Advisers Bill and John McCallister’s Opposition Bill – emanating from the Assembly itself.

By contrast, the DUP tabled petitions of concern with little reservation, vetoing everything from motions which censured its own members to a bill which would have exempted amateur sports clubs from paying rates – and famously, multiple motions supporting same-sex marriage.

While it is hugely improbable that Sinn Fein will unseat the DUP at the top of the Executive, it is probably likely that Sinn Fein will take the one seat – perhaps in Upper Bann – necessary to have its own Assembly veto. If that happens, it could make the Assembly much more like the Executive where mutual vetoes have seen even some seemingly routine aspects of government grind along at a snail’s pace.

But it could also force the two big parties to work closer together, given the knowledge by the DUP that it no longer could get things passed in the Assembly – such as any attempt to change the definition of a victim – unless it had a private agreement with Sinn Fein.

The DUP has already shown itself to be pragmatic and such a scenario could see the sort of more public horse-trading common in other coalition governments, with perhaps the Maze or an Irish Language Act used to secure other concessions.

The DUP realises that its regular use of petitions of concern has brought criticism and that was one of the reasons that last year’s Fresh Start deal introduced a protocol to slightly limit the use of the mechanism.

But the protocol has no statutory basis, meaning that it is in effect the equivalent of a gentlemen’s agreement. It will only work if the signatories to it choose to prioritise that voluntary agreement when opponents are urging them to veto some unpopular measure.

If the two big parties enter the next Assembly armed with mutual vetoes, they could aggressively throw their weight around with each other. But it is more likely that they will find themselves working closer together than ever before.