On the Guardian Politics Blog Henry McDonald raises, and dismisses, the notion that Sinn Féin might bring down the executive in order to provoke an early election. It is a possibility which I put to Fair Deal when he offered his list of communication ‘does and don’ts’ for the DUP on Open Unionism. Had the advice, ‘do hope with all your might that an Assembly election will not precede, or coincide with, the general election’, appeared on that post, it would not have looked out of place. Perhaps it should have been included, right after, ‘don’t commit to end double jobbing and then perform a u turn whenever you get nervous about the Westminster poll’.
The Democratic Unionists famed ardour for campaigning has certainly been diminished by the party’s third place finish in Europe. Peter Robinson’s plan to accumulate record numbers of Harrods’ food hall loyalty card points for a further four years is inspired, at least in part, by electoral nervousness. If the DUP leaks votes, as expected, to the TUV, and the Conservatives and Unionists can attract a sizeable middle class constituency, intent on participating in UK politics, then seats will change hands. If an Assembly election were to take place, in 2009 or early 2010, it is unlikely that Robinson would remain first minister.
Neither would an early Stormont poll suit the DUP’s Ulster Unionist rivals. The UUP’s alliance with the Conservative party is built for Westminster, but a similar deal has not yet been struck with regard to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Should an election be called before next May, Sir Reg Empey and his colleagues would need to decide quickly whether to extend UCUNF to cover the devolved institutions. Otherwise there could be a preposterous situation, whereby Conservative and Ulster Unionist campaign teams compete in constituencies, months before they field joint parliamentary candidates.
The most logical course of action would be to pursue an extension of the deal now. If the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists can share an agenda for Europe, and nationally, there is no reason why the two groups can not cooperate in the regional assembly and even in local government. The UUP would form the senior partner in Northern Ireland and could exercise, proportionately, a high degree of influence in steering Tory policy here.
Although consolidating UCUNF is the best option in terms of consistency, not to mention finance, for the UUP, some of the most hardened sceptics remain within the Assembly party. There is a degree of self interest there which the leadership is reluctant to challenge. In conjunction with a grassroots hardcore, who might be more comfortable cooperating with Jim Allister’s TUV, they present an obstacle to an early Stormont deal with the Tories. If it were perceived that republicans had cynically collapsed regional government, in order to get their own way, it would be difficult to run a successful moderate, secular campaign.
It is unlikely that UCUNF will be extended to regional government, voluntarily, until the Westminster dispensation begins to yield positive results. Therefore, in common with the DUP, an early Assembly election is the very last thing that Ulster Unionists should wish for. And as Fair Deal has observed, an election would not necessarily follow, should Sinn Féin leave the Executive. Let’s hope that the secretary of state doesn’t want one either.