Sam McBride: Sinn Fein again outmanoeuvred by Foster's dominant DUP

There was a political maturity to the formation of this Executive which suggested that this Stormont term might just be different.

Thursday, 26th May 2016, 8:23 am
Updated Thursday, 26th May 2016, 4:23 pm
First Minister Arlene Foster (third right) with new DUP ministers Alastair Ross, Michelle McIlveen, Paul Givan, Simon Hamilton and Peter Weir

Coming out of an election where the DUP held its 38 seats but where Sinn Fein lost a seat due to an alarming drop in the nationalist vote, First Minister Arlene Foster has fairly effortlessly presided over the formation of a new Executive.

In doing so, she has secured Sinn Fein’s support for a unionist – Claire Sugden – to replace the constitutionally neutral David Ford as Justice Minister.

There is no tangible benefit to Sinn Fein from supporting Ms Sugden’s candidature.

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Martin McGuinness (centre) with Sinn Fein's new ministerial team: Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, Megan Fearon, Michelle ONeill and Chris Hazzard

When I asked Martin McGuinness what his party received in return for supporting Ms Sugden, he did not point to anything specific.

Instead, he set out a pragmatic defence of Sinn Fein’s position, saying that the party was “dealing with the uniqueness of the situation”.

In reality, there was little room for Sinn Fein to manoeuvre, with the nuclear threat of refusing to appoint a unionist minister, hence leading to fresh elections, clearly not judged to be a palatable alternative.

Instead, the DUP and Sinn Fein have attempted to present a united front in the face of what is now a numerically significant official Opposition.

Martin McGuinness (centre) with Sinn Fein's new ministerial team: Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, Megan Fearon, Michelle ONeill and Chris Hazzard

Their approach to the contentious issue of the Justice Minister is instructive of how they are likely to approach future challenges.

In effect, their choice has been to make Stormont work, as the alternative is likely to strengthen the Opposition.

But while on issues such as job creation they can jointly win, there are other areas – such as the Irish language or flags – where a win for one almost inevitably means a defeat for the other.

On those decisions, the overall victor in this Executive will be decided by who can best position itself behind the scenes to secure gains.

Both parties are likely to seek to focus on the issues which attract the broadest support – for instance, the long-overdue upgrade of the Belfast to Londonderry road – rather than those areas which will necessarily lead to disagreement. But events could derail those plans.

On paper, the DUP team is markedly sharper and certainly more experienced than that of Sinn Fein, partly because Martin McGuinness has consistently opted to use ministerial positions to increase the profile of backbench MLAs (perhaps to ensure that there is no obvious leadership challenger), while the DUP has developed a core team of veteran ministers.

Although Sinn Fein has an experienced team of advisers, that ministerial inexperience is likely to tilt the balance of power within Sinn Fein departments more in favour of the civil service – and therefore away from the sort of radical change which the party says it wants.

Now that it faces a real left-wing threat in the chamber from People Before Profit, it is difficult to comprehend why Sinn Fein has overlooked impressive and experienced Assembly performers such as Daithi McKay and Michelle Gildernew in favour of an inexperienced MLA such as the 24-year-old Megan Fearon who has not even chaired an Assembly committee since being co-opted as an MLA four years ago straight from university.

On the DUP side of the Executive table, although Mrs Foster has maintained some continuity with the last set of DUP ministers, she has incrementally moved the party away from its Paisleyite roots and further towards the tone and policies of the UUP.

With the departure of Mervyn Storey (who intriguingly seems to have been given no significant role) and Lord Morrow, there is now just one DUP minister who represents the ‘old DUP’ – and that is the youthful and fairly pragmatic Paul Givan, rather than a Gregory Campbell-type figure.

Mrs Foster has also broken two links with Peter Robinson, dropping Jonathan Bell, who was not universally popular with colleagues, and Emma Little-Pengelly, both of whom were viewed as having been given their positions due to their loyalty to Mr Robinson.

The DUP and Sinn Fein are now shaping up to work closer together than ever before, something clear from the rhetoric of senior figures from both parties on Wednesday.

But, coming out of an election where nationalism has gone backwards, the events of recent days have reinforced the dominance of the DUP in the new Stormont.

Martin McGuinness now desperately needs to be able to present major tangible victories to his electorate over coming weeks.

From a position of such strength, Mrs Foster might realise that for this particular fresh start to be sustainable, she will have to give her opposite number some meaty concessions.