Thursday, March 1, 2007

Malcolm arrived back from Northern Ireland more than a little puzzled. All the commentators seem to be saying that the Assembly election next week will be the mixture as before. Let’s pause to reprise that: the last outing (November 2003) gave Paisley’s DUP 25.7% of the vote (and 30—up 10—of the 108 seats) to Trimble’s UUP 22.7% (and down just 1 seat to 27). On the Nationalist side, Gerry Adams’s Sinn Féin nailed 24 seats (up 6) on just 22.2%, at the expense of the SDLP’s 18 seats (down 6) from just 16.7%. That left the Alliance with just 5.6% and 6 seats, the egregious Bob McCartney’s one-man band of UKUP, David Ervine for the PUP, and Dr Kieran Deeny nicking a SDLP seat in West Tyrone on the issue of the local hospital.

Notice that the Big Four (or rather two-and-two) had seven of every eight votes, leaving little elbow-room for the rest. Bragging rights depend on coming sixth (success!) or seventh (gloom) in multi-member constituencies. The art is for a candidate to hoover up support in his/her local patch, then to persuade supporters to transfer lesser preferences to fellow party candidates. In the past the DUP argued for “plumping” (not awarding the preferences beyond the party’s own nominees). That, however, abandons the later elections to the luck of the draw. The Nationalists (who, incidentally, may also be more ready to register this time) seemed prepared to cross their party-lines for lower preferences, which last time meant SF preferences going to the SDLP. Alliance has gained from UUP transfers.

Guessing how those fifth and sixth preferences will fall is just that—sheer guesswork. All the commentators are going on little more than their hunches. That means the casual reader needs to feel convinced by the surrounding argument and honest nous, as with Sammy Morse, or by the grasp of the demographics, as with Nicholas Whyte. What does not work too well, for Malcolm at least, is an approach like that of Dan Keenan in the Irish Times, who seems to rely on 'phoning round the candidates and their agents, and distilling a synopsis thereof.

So, let’s snatch another straw from the wind: a Belfast Telegraph MORI poll. And consider the crude result:

Umm. The only obvious gainers here are the Alliance and Greens. The main losers are the UUP. But do the sum, says Malcolm: that's 41% for the two unionist factions, but 42% for the nationalists.

Up till now the assumption has been that, in any hypothetical administration, it would be Paisley as First Minister and McGuinness as deputy. But now it seems that the outcome could depend on the "others": Alliance, an odd Green, and even
—Heaven help us!—McCartney.

Even Private Eye has picked up on a variant of this, in a "Postcard from Ulster" [sic]:
... the plan is already falling apart. For although the Paisley family is still wavering over whether to accept the First Minster [sic] role, the vicious in-fighting within the Democratic Unionist Party means there's now no chance of them agreeing to meet Blair's deadline.

Worse still, the sudden and unexpected return of Robert McCartney QC to the political fray may wreck the entire project. The former North Down MP has decided to stand simultaneously in six of the 18 multi-seat constituencies (which elect a ridiculous 108 assemblymen to represent just 1.7 million people). His platform is essentially that Blair is a bastard, Paisley is a bastard and Adams is a bastard, devolution is a waste of time, and a vote for Bob is a vote against all the bastards and everything they stand for.

Even if McCartney doesn't achieve the balance of power in the assembly, there's a reasonable prospect that he can split the Unionist bloc sufficiently to allow Sinn Féin to emerge as the largest party.

Even more ho-hum, says Malcolm.

But this takes us to the root of Malcolm's puzzlement. Quite frankly, he does not invest much credence in the MORI poll: he sees a +/- 3% error-allowance as a very blunt instrument in a PR-context. What he did personally notice, though, was a substantial showing (at least on the lamp-posts) by anti-agreement candidates (and not just McCartney, either). This presumably must amount to DUP defections and rejections. Meanwhile, on that topic, the anti-agreement types appear to have an efficient drip-feed system: a resignation a week (or even each day) to keep the local press itchy and the party satraps antsy. The anti-agreement Unionists are playing this one to perfection, but it's something common to both DUP- and SF-defectors: the resignation of Davy Tweed from the DUP caucus on Ballymena District Council is the latest instalment.

So, at the moment, it is instability in motion. All Malcolm, again at a distance, can do is keep an eye on the postings: Slugger tends to pick up the vibes as fast as any.

And, a footnote. This time last week you could get a generous 2-to-1 on England for Croke Park; and the feeling in the North was the bookies were open to offers better than that, but no takers. On the Assembly Election, the bookies are being far more cagey: try Eastwoods for the current quotations, but notice the "no bets" for several anti-agreement candidates.
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