Posted By: May 29, 2014

Newton Emerson.Irish News ( Belfast). Thursday, May 29, 2014.

LAST weekend's elections have set the political agenda in Northern Ireland for the
rest of the decade, indicating that if Stormont survives it will be in a state of
limbo. The council and European results are the third and fourth elections since
2009 in which Sinn Féin has beaten the DUP in the popular vote. While Sinn Féin's
support has topped out, the DUP's has begun to fall. The council results in
particular suggest a fresh squeeze on Peter Robinson ahead of 2016's Stormont
contest. The UUP has turned its fortunes around by shifting to the right, revealing
a hardening of attitudes among the unionist electorate. Smaller unionist parties are
also growing to the right of the UUP.

Cannibalising the UUP vote has always been Robinson's strategy to stay ahead of Sinn
Féin. Before the flag protests he pursued this by making occasional moderate noises
but now there is no doubt he will tack in the opposite direction. It is doubtful if
even this will work. With only one minister in the executive, the UUP can move
sharply to the right at very little cost or consequence. The DUP can only follow it
so far without causing a political crisis. As the council results came in, senior
DUP figures began talking of "negotiations" with the UUP on Stormont deals and
electoral pacts. UUP leader Mike Nesbitt dismissed this out of hand. The lesson the
UUP has learned from its long trouncing by Ian Paisley is that it should 'do a
Paisley' on the DUP. Unionism is about to lurch heavily to the right. Robinson's
response will be an executive lock-down on anything that might smell of compromise.
Revisiting Haass is out of the question. The resulting bad blood will make agreeing
anything else increasingly difficult. The sole name of the DUP game will be topping
the poll in 2016 by creating no Maze-style hostages to fortune. Taking first or
second spot at Stormont is not about who has the symbolic small-d deputy in front of
their first ministerial title, although unionism has unwisely built that up into a
flag-style neuralgic issue. The largest party gets first pick of ministries, which
generally means finance and personnel - the queen on the executive chess-board. The
DUP has again very unwisely built this office up into the key to all actual power.

If the DUP found itself playing second fiddle to Sinn Féin after 2016 in a hardening
unionist climate, it would be crucified. Robinson might very well prefer to walk
away. But whatever happens, an executive deadlock is now in Sinn Féin's interests as

Following its electoral triumph in the south, Sinn Féin has strongly indicated that
it will not consider entering government at the next Irish general election. Junior
partners always suffer in a Dublin coalition and this will be especially true as the
republic endures another Dáil term of economic adjustment. Preserving its purity as
a left-wing opposition is now the name of Sinn Féin's all-Ireland game. Taking
decisions at Stormont, which is facing the first budget cuts in its modern history,
would sully that image. We have already seen this in the way Sinn Féin pulled the
plug on a welfare reform deal in the north to protect itself in the south. Sinn Féin
has learned how completely irrelevant Stormont politics are to the southern
electorate, as long its rivals are not gifted any suggestion it has implemented
'cuts' anywhere on the island. The party would be perfectly happy to jam a spanner
in Stormont until it is a major partner in a Dublin government. One obvious way out
of this, even if Sinn Féin became the largest assembly party, would be to let the
DUP take the finance portfolio regardless. Both parties are known to negotiate on
their ministerial choices ahead of running d'Hondt. But why would Sinn Féin help the
DUP out of a hole?

Sinn Féin enjoys some southern kudos from the peace process but it would not suffer
at all from a crisis brought on by recalcitrant unionism.

Sinn Féin could only benefit from appearing reasonable by comparison, with the added
benefit of a few more concessions once London stepped in to bang heads together.

In Northern Ireland at least, letting Unionism drive itself mad then picking up the
pieces has been the only game Gerry Adams has ever played. Despite some wishful
thinking in the Dublin press, he will still be around to do that to the end of this
decade and beyond.newton@irishnews.com