Election: Sam McBride – Executive has failed by its own standards but is set to be returned

All smiles here, but the Executive has often been fractious and divided
All smiles here, but the Executive has often been fractious and divided

Five years ago, Peter Robinson achieved what no other unionist leader had managed: he not only survived after sharing power with nationalism, but in that year’s Assembly election he oversaw an increase in his party’s number of seats.

Having come through a personal and political furnace, the veteran tactician was master of all he surveyed and faced a collapsing Ulster Unionist Party on the one hand and a TUV which had less than three per cent of the seats held by the DUP in Stormont.

With such a thunderous endorsement, the DUP leader declared that this mandate could not simply be marked by survival; it had to be about delivery.

Although ill health no doubt hastened his departure last year, even the DUP’s most cunning electoral mastermind would have struggled to conceive an electoral campaign in which he could convince voters that the last five years have lived up to that vision.

Wider events, personal over-confidence and ultimately a divided DUP derailed Mr Robinson’s hope of a mandate where politics moved from parades and flags to the economy and education – and a DUP which via that route would broaden its appeal even beyond the success of 2011.

Since then there has been: deadlock on The Maze site causing a bitter row with Martin McGuinness, the flag protests and public disorder which followed, stasis on parading with a major new flashpoint at Twaddell, years of dispute over welfare reform and a budgetary crisis which has seen long-term financial planning abandoned in favour of dramatic last-minute cuts to front line services in order to keep Stormont solvent.

An analysis by The Detail website yesterday found that by the Executive’s own standards, it failed to fully achieve almost half the targets it set for itself in the Programme for Government. And that was despite the fact that the targets covered a four-year period but the Assembly had its life artificially extended by a year.

The most that could be said for this Executive is that it survived several crises which in years gone by would have toppled it. Although parties claim success in various areas, it is telling that neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein are urging voters to endorse them because of their record. Rather, the DUP are pushing – increasingly strongly, perhaps because voters are more sceptical of it – the line ‘vote for us or you get McGuinness as First Minister.

On the other hand, in recent weeks Sinn Fein – now increasingly focused on the South – has been more comfortable talking about the Easter Rising than about some of its own policies such as the proposal to slash tax for the biggest corporations.

In that context, and with formal structures for Opposition now in place, it seems extraordinary that no major party is seeking to set itself apart from an Executive which now doesn’t even seem to believe all of its own spin.

Mike Nesbitt has defied past predictions – mine included – to lead the UUP to a point it could scarcely have believed possible five years ago.

But, by sounding so keen to get back into such an unpopular Executive that he (and the SDLP) savage so consistently, the UUP leader has potentially squandered one of his greatest assets: that he’s outside the tent.

After all, politics is a long game; a lot can change in five years.