Retreat to their bunkers by DUP and Sinn Fein makes election stalemate likely

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

When it became clear that an election was unavoidable the DUP decided that their campaign was going to be about Gerry Adams.

RHI would be sidelined (“there’s an investigation pending, so we can’t talk about it”); the so-called non-aggression pact between them and Sinn Fein was shredded; and the ‘Stop Sinn Fein Becoming First Minister’ mantra of 2007, 2011 and 2016 replaced with ‘Stop Gerry Adams Implementing His Radical Agenda For Northern Ireland.’ Whatever else may be said in the official manifesto, press statements, policy papers or interviews between now and March 2, their whole campaign boils down to three words: Stop Gerry Adams.

It’s all to do with the impact of message discipline. Keep it simple. Keep it us-and-them. Don’t confuse your core vote with lengthy explanations. Focus everything on something you reckon will distract and spook your voters. In other words, hone in on the one man who still rattles a very broad swathe of unionism. And that man is Gerry Adams.

Meanwhile Sinn Fein, who made an election unavoidable, are playing entirely to their core vote, too. For them this election is about respect, promoting the unity project, equality, Irish language and, though whisper it, ‘putting manners’ on some unionists. None of this surprises me, of course, because, just like the DUP, their campaign is based on the impact of message discipline. It’s about maximising their own potential base rather than reaching out to anyone else. Mind you, I still don’t understand why, if they had all these views on and suspicions about the DUP, they still managed to sign off on a joint ‘we are getting on with good government’ statement on November 21. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that both parties were being disingenuous with each other and with the general public.

For both those parties this is a power struggle for top dog position. They both accept (and I agree with them) that they’ll remain the lead parties of their respective communities and will, inevitably and eventually, have to cut yet another deal with each other. Sinn Fein sensed weakness in the DUP after the RHI story broke and seized the moment for an early election. In one sense who can blame them? There’s an outside chance they could sneak past the DUP (which would destabilise the DUP leadership); and a possibility that, even if the DUP remain ahead of them, they could still slip below the 30 seats required to deploy the Petition of Concern alone. And even if neither of those things happens, it will still require a new round of talks to reboot the Executive and Sinn Fein know that they exercise a massive veto on that entire process.

Although I think it’s unlikely, I can’t help wondering what would happen if the DUP did slip behind Sinn Fein? How could they even begin to cut a deal with Michelle O’Neill if they spent a campaign insisting that she is just Adams’s puppet? Would Foster (assuming that she didn’t fall on her leadership sword at that point) be prepared to accept the title of deputy first minister? Would the DUP give the imprimatur to a deal which saw them as the ‘lesser’ partner? How would unionism overall feel: by which I mean, would they prefer direct rule to a Sinn Fein first minister? Or would the DUP just refuse a deal and settle for either direct rule or yet another election?

On the other hand, would Sinn Fein prefer direct rule to yet another period of serving as deputy to the DUP; particularly on the back of an election result in which Foster would claim vindication? This election came about because Sinn Fein’s grassroots were increasingly unhappy with the nature of the DUP/SF relationship and won’t be easy to reassure if the result sees Foster returned, mostly undamaged.

So, whatever the outcome, it looks like we’re in for a long period of negotiations. Some sources in Sinn Fein even suggest that an entire rewrite of the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements will be necessary. People in both parties have been telling me for years that I have overegged my argument that the relationship between them is awful; yet neither has been able to explain to me how, if I’m wrong, they have ended up with this spectacularly unpleasant, destabilising brawl.

Is change possible? Well, it would require the SDLP and UUP to emerge as the lead parties; and since that would require every one of their 45 candidates to win it seems highly unlikely. It would also require the DUP and Sinn Fein to stand aside from the Executive, and I don’t see that happening, either. Furthermore, it would require UUP and SDLP voters to transfer immediately and in unprecedented numbers to each other – to even shore up the 28 seats they are defending – and that would necessitate an electoral revolution.

That said, a very strong performance from the UUP/SDLP (and from Alliance/Greens/PBP too) – on the back of an increased turnout fuelled by previous non-voters – could hurt both the DUP/SF and keep them both below 30. That would send the sort of message that might make them sit up and take notice: the sort of message that might make them acknowledge the fact that there really is a demand for change in Northern Ireland.

So, while it’s almost impossible that we’ll see the DUP/SF replaced as top dogs, it’s not impossible for the other parties to do much better than expected and, in so doing, trigger the circumstances that would lead to the change that so many people seem to be talking about. March 2 still has the potential to be a very interesting election.