Anyone who pays too much attention to the media would have thought there was a political crisis developing during the last week as word spread that Sinn Fein was considering refusing to nominate Peter Robinson to the position of First Minister following Ian Paisley’s resignation. In reality it all turned out to be a false alarm but it allowed politicians and journalists to lapse back into the old days of endless speculation, perpetual crisis and talks about talks.
In the end Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were nominated for First Minister and deputy First Minister with reasonably good humour all round. Sir Reg Empey, the UUP Leader, tried to rain on the parade by pointing out the ludicrous nature of the situation but probably struck the wrong note because while the public may well sympathise with this analysis the ‘man in the street’ probably wants continuity and stability before anything else – no matter how ludicrous.
The debate has raged all week about the advisability of Sinn Fein’s tactic. While they had grumbled in private they had not made public this unhappiness. They then let it be known through ‘SF sources’ they were unhappy and eventually the party confirmed that it was considering its position on the nomination process.
Some commentators such as Newton Emerson in the Irish News lambasted Sinn Fein, many others debated who had most to loss or gain from an election. Speculation was heaped on speculation.
Malachi O’Doherty in the Belfast Telegraph felt that while the tactic showed that Sinn Fein could not be taken for granted, he believed that an election would not be popular amongst SF voters beyond the ‘core’ or ‘base’ of ardent supporters. Senior UUP sources tended to concur that the tactic – threatening an election but not actually causing one would reassure many Sinn Fein supporters.
In truth it probably, ironically, reassured many DUP supporters of the correctness of their party’s position.
Both parties remain nervous – SF face losing their MEP in Dublin next year and Michelle Gildernew, the MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone, must be concerned about her position at the next General Election, given the level of discontent amongst Republicans in her constituency.
The DUP are concerned about the damage Jim Allister and the Traditional Unionist Voice could do to them in the European elections – ironically a constituency-based Assembly poll might have helped them stop Jim Allister’s progress. In next year’s European election, Northern Ireland is one constituency enabling Allister to put himself before the entire electorate in a way he couldn’t in an Assembly election.
Should the IRA Army Council disband prior to the European election – the reason Jim Allister gave for not backing power-sharing and resigning from the DUP – it is unclear whether he would run.
Part of the frantic coverage of events this week included the fact that Jeffrey Donaldson MP MLA had been appointed DUP Director of Elections. While the media focused on the possibility of Assembly elections it is also the case that if the DUP perform badly in next year’s European elections Jeffrey Donaldson may get the blame.