Northern agenda largely about Arlene Foster vs Michelle O’Neill

Posted By: February 06, 2017

“Cash for ash” controversy badly hit DUP leader’s political value ahead of election
 “…DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds took the Orange card out of his wallet last week.”

Gerry Moriarty.Irish Times. Dublin. Monday, February 6, 2017
Donald Trump and Brexit are modern examples of what Winston Churchill after the second World War famously called “violent and tremendous” international changes. But will that global volatility strike little Northern Ireland after the votes in the Stormont Assembly election are counted on March 2nd? Or will it be the tribal dreary steeples as usual?

It is a difficult question to answer, for as well as unexpected this is a truly different and much more unfathomable election than the Northern Assembly contest of just nine months ago.

This fight will be characterized primarily as “Arlene versus Michelle” although it will be about many other issues as well.

And Arlene Foster and her DUP party must be more fretful than Sinn Féin’s new Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill, as the election campaign kicks into a higher gear.

In last year’s tussle, the concentration was more on “vote Arlene” than “vote DUP, ” and that personality-driven campaign worked well with the party holding its 38 seats. But with the “cash for ash” controversy, Foster’s currency has diminished in political value.

The renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme will be pervasive throughout this campaign, nd that makes life difficult for Foster, her advisers and her candidates. There is a sense of uncertainty, confusion and unease among Unionists about the fiasco that ultimately could cost the northern taxpayer a few million short of half a billion pounds.

Corruption scandal

Opponents of the DUP, particularly Sinn Féin, have majored on this as a corruption scandal much more than an example of breathtaking bureaucratic and political ineptitude. And for balance it must be restated that, so far, no such alleged corruption has been established.

The DUP has tried to characterize it as more cock-up than conspiracy. At the early stages of this crisis, Foster was lampooned for suggesting that she could not be across “every jot and tittle” of every issue that went on in her former department of enterprise, trade and investment which launched the RHI in 2012.

She was accused of buck-passing. Yet it emerged last week that the North’s Department of Agriculture, when the new Sinn Féin Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill was its minister, organised 58 workshops advising farmers of the benefits of the RHI scheme.

Logically, if the “jot and tittle” argument should not apply to Foster then neither should it apply to O’Neill, it would seem, but right now claims the fault primarily lies with the DUP and Foster have got much more traction with the public.

There has to be a DUP fear that some hitherto loyal supporters appalled or mystified at the whole catastrophe will switch to the Ulster Unionist Party or the more right-wing Traditional Unionist Voice, or stay at home.

That concern is compounded by a poll from a new Northern Ireland market research company, LucidTalk. It has a 6,000-strong opinion panel. Between January 26th and 28th, 2,500 people responded to its election survey with 1,580 of them taken into consideration as a representative sample of the Northern Ireland population.

DUP plunge

The figures have the DUP down by 3.3 per cent from 29.2 per cent last year to a predicted 25.9 per cent on March 2nd. Sinn Féin is forecast to increase its vote from 24 per cent to 25.1 per cent. The Ulster Unionist Party is predicted to rise from 12.6 per cent to 13.9 per cent; the SDLP up by 0.4 per cent to 12.4 per cent; Alliance up from 7 per cent to 8.9 per cent; the TUV up 0.9 per cent to 4.3 per cent; the Greens up by 1.2 per cent to 3.9 per cent; and People Before Profit up by 0.7 per cent to 2.7 per cent. Everybody up, except the DUP.

The poll has the DUP at 25.9 per cent and Sinn Féin at 25.1 per cent and therefore close to neck-and-neck. That must upset DUP HQ although in the current frenetic climate perhaps some found solace that the drop was just 3.3 per cent. But how to recover? That is the question the DUP is struggling to answer.

Polling in Northern Ireland always has been problematical and it will be interesting to see if LucidTalk’s surveying is anyway in line with the biggest poll of all on March 2nd. But the DUP was content to give the figures credence and that was for two reasons: because it is worried about this election but also because it knows this is the sort of poll it can turn to its advantage: that it can concentrate Unionist minds and bring them back to do-or-die constitutional matters rather than a relatively normal financial scandal.

This time,  the 18 constituencies are reduced from six seats to five seats making a total of 90 seats compared to 108 previously. Applying a proportional model based on last year’s results that would give the DUP 32 seats compared to 38 as at present; Sinn Féin 23 compared to 28; the UUP 13 compared to 16; the SDLP 10 compared to 12; Alliance 7 compared to 8; and the others five compared to six.

Most vulnerable

That would leave the DUP with an advantage of nine seats over the UUP compared to 10 at present. But based on the LucidTalk figures, the DUP proportionally would be likely to lose seats and Sinn Féin, at least, hold its own and possibly make proportional gains.

The parties and the politicians who won the sixth seats in the 18 constituencies last year obviously are the most vulnerable. Examining the figures from last year,  when the DUP had a very good election,  the party would seem under threat in about eight constituencies including East, North and South Belfast, and Lagan Valley and Strangford. In fact it has already conceded a seat in North Down, just running two candidates when it won three seats last year. Its Minister for Education, Peter Weir, has moved to Strangford where the DUP is battling to hold its three seats. He replaces Jonathan Bell, whose explosive allegations about RHI caused this political upheaval. On a bad day, the DUP could be down to 30 seats; on a very bad day, even less.

Sinn Féin on the other hand appears in a much stronger position although it could be vulnerable in West Belfast and East Antrim and, at a push, in Mid Ulster or West Tyrone. On a good day it could win 26, 27 or even 28 seats. In such circumstances the DUP might end up with an advantage of only two, three or four seats over Sinn Féin compared to 10 at present.

And perhaps the RHI debacle has so upset Unionism that there would be an even greater shedding of DUP votes?

The SDLP would do well to win 10 seats; it is exposed in constituencies such as West Belfast, North Belfast, Fermanagh South Tyrone and West Tyrone. The UUP seems reasonably well-placed to win about a dozen seats although on a bad day it could be under threat in places such as North Antrim, Newry and Armagh, South Down and Strangford.

Shock losses

Alliance might drop one or two seats while veteran socialist Eamonn McCann must battle hard to hold his People Before Profit seat in Foyle. The Greens have a reasonable chance of holding its two seats, and the TUV leader Jim Allister with his high profile over RHI should be safe in North Antrim.

Of course there will be some shock losses and some new faces.

There will be focus on whether the centrist UUP, SDLP and Alliance can persuade more of the electorate that it does government better than the DUP and Sinn Féin, but inevitably the sharper spotlight will be on “Arlene versus Michelle”.

And that too must cause the DUP leaders and election strategists to lose sleep. Here the LucidTalk poll finds that Foster’s approval rating before RHI was 49 per cent but now it is 22 per cent. O’Neill is at 46 per cent.

For Sinn Féin to get close to – or on an extraordinary day win more seats than – the DUP,  then it must keep pushing RHI and DUP incompetence and alleged corruption. To resist, the DUP must raise the spectre of Sinn Féin as the largest party and try to bring Foster back into the hearts of the Unionist electorate. Fairly or unfairly, she has been depicted as abrasive and arrogant and the DUP now has little time to challenge that perception and soften her image.

So far, the DUP has been on the defensive and is just running to keep still while Sinn Féin has been confidently pressing forward. Which is why DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds took the Orange card out of his wallet last week.

He said the poll demonstrated that “Sinn Féin could return to Stormont with the most seats and take the First Minister’s post”.

He was blunt: “If the people of Northern Ireland really want to stop Sinn Féin from getting power, and implementing their radical agenda for Northern Ireland, then you cannot risk splitting the Unionist vote. You must vote DUP.”

How unionists respond to that stark tribal warning will be the main factor in determining the outcome of this unpredictable and – just possibly – watershed election.