Northern Irish election will be Orange versus Green
Analysis: Sinn Féin is primed for the poll, but the DUP seems caught in the headlights
At 5.30pm on Monday, Northern Secretary James Brokenshire formally launched the North into an Assembly election campaign that will last six weeks and three days.
Only 10 months after last May’s Assembly elections, which were supposed to usher in harmonious powersharing government in Belfast, voters will again go to the polls on Thursday, March 2nd, to elect what seems certain to be a distinctly discordant new Assembly.
Stamina will be required for a campaign in which many issues will be raised, including “cash for ash”, Brexit, health, education and jobs, but, as usual, Orange versus Green will dominate.
The DUP, as it has done before, mustered in strength to provide a phalanx of support for its leader and outgoing first minister, Arlene Foster, at Parliament Buildings on Monday.
As well as her Assembly colleagues, Westminster MPs such as DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Ian Paisley stood shoulder to shoulder with her.
“If Sinn Féin thinks the DUP are split over this, then they are barking up the wrong tree,” said a senior DUP figure.
But neither Foster nor her colleagues can be relishing the run-up to the election. It will be nasty.
RottweilerSinn Féin Minister for Finance Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was given the role of chief attack Rottweiler for his party in recent weeks. It was all about DUP “corruption” as opposed to alleged corruption.
He conjured memories of the late Conor Cruise O’Brien who devised the “Gubu” acronym in relation to Malcolm Macarthur and political events involving the attorney general Patrick Connolly and taoiseach Charles Haughey.
It was Haughey, in relation to Macarthur, who spoke about happenings being grotesque, unprecedented, bizarre and unbelievable.
Ó Muilleoir and his Sinn Féin colleagues opted for Cabs, in relation to alleged (although the word “alleged” never figured) DUP “corruption, arrogance, bigotry and sectarianism”. And it will be Cabs all the way to polling day.
So far the DUP has not put up anything close to decent resistance to that verbal assault. There is a sense of the party still being caught in the headlights. Sinn Féin is primed, eager and ready for the election but the DUP is not.
An indication of how pumped up Sinn Féin has become was evident on the Falls Road in Belfast on Sunday.
The former IRA prisoner and Sinn Féin activist Bobby Storey had just walked out of the Felons’ Club where Sinn Féin selected its candidates for the West Belfast constituency.
He looked across at reporters and with a broad smile declared: “Let’s go.”
Shaping upHe did not need any confirmation from Brokenshire about an election – he and his colleagues have been shaping up for it for weeks now.
It reflects how Sinn Féin – from its grassroots to its street-cred activists like Storey, all the way up to Gerry Adams – is ready for the long contest ahead, and believes it will inflict real harm on the DUP.
Nobody in Sinn Féin, so far at least, is so hubristic as to predict it will have more seats than the DUP after polling day, but it is confident the DUP will emerge from the tussle undermined, its confidence damaged.
And that’s partly because of another acronym that is not going to go away, RHI, the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.
The DUP must fear a drip-drip of stories about the disastrous “cash for ash” scheme throughout the election campaign that will keep tarnishing the party.
It knows it is not just the nationalist community that has been angered by the possible loss of hundreds of millions of pounds of public money through the botched scheme’s failure to control subsidies payable under it.
There are also DUP supporters annoyed at the failure to impose cost controls on the scheme.
Some of them may have suspicions about how it was operated and be unsure whether to hold with Foster and her party or maybe swing towards the Ulster Unionists, or not vote at all.
At a time like this the DUP probably could do with the tactical and strategic nous of former leader Peter Robinson.
When he bowed out of politics 12 months ago he offered to be there to provide advice to Foster if she needed it. This may be the time for it.
Tribal cardA senior DUP source was in no doubt that whatever tactics the party employs, the main one once again will be using the tribal card.
The emphatic warning that will be trumpeted again and again is that if unionists do not vote for Foster and the DUP, they will end up with a Sinn Féin first minister.
It is not known whether that could be Martin McGuinness because Sinn Féin has not yet said whether he will be running in Foyle again.
Most people at Stormont on Monday were heartened to see him looking in better shape than when he announced his resignation a week ago.
Were he to stand he would not need to canvass – although that would be contrary to his political nature – so assured would he be of holding the seat and probably topping the poll.
The DUP source said the party would gather itself and meet the Sinn Féin challenge.
He was adamant it would keep faith with Foster. “She is not a liability,” he said.
He repeated that an election might have been averted if it had not been for the Sinn Féin ultimatum that Foster resign pending an investigation into RHI.
“Arlene Foster won’t be hung out to dry to suit the ambitions of Sinn Féin. We won’t be dictated to by Sinn Féin,” he asserted.
He said it was not “ideal circumstances” for the DUP to be fighting an election and seemed reconciled to the party “taking some hits” when the votes are counted.
But, setting an Orange/Green tone for the long election campaign, he accused Sinn Féin of exploiting RHI as a “contrivance to try to pull a fly one” and take over as the largest party at Stormont.
“That won’t be a difficult message for our footsoldiers to sell on the doorstep,” he said.