The Irish Times view on Northern Ireland Assembly elections: Beyond the orange v green

Brexit's outworking, Covid-19, the provision of abortion services and renewed focus on violence against women rival perennial preoccupation with orange versus green in everyday conversations this election season in Northern Ireland. The results in the Assembly election of May 5th will reflect these evolving concerns.

And yet the election will inevitably leave many questions unanswered. It will not, for example, further advance debate on re-negotiation of 1998’s legislative structures or on a Border poll. The election could see “neithers” confuse the old binary outcome, yet decline to consolidate the cross-community Alliance as a third force. Unionism versus nationalism retains its drama.

The outcome holds most risk to Jeffrey Donaldson, whose brief leadership of the DUP has been mixed so far. His increasingly tailored pleas for voters to stymie Sinn Féin topping the poll might possibly enthuse wider unionism. But sharing platforms at pan-loyalist rallies has not shown the MP for Lagan Valley in the best light.

The counter-pressure to pleading for every unionist vote has been Sinn Féin hushing its talk of a united Ireland, in favour of emphasis on the cost of living and the desirability of partnership. Some have come close to calling this a sneaky move rather than logical electoral gamesmanship.

Donaldson has stuck with a traditional anti- Ulster Unionist gambit of warning against "splitting" the unionist vote. Tasteless campaigning has had him punch-pulling his response to a poster of Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie defaced with a noose, placed beside the platform Donaldson then shared with an unelected rabble-rouser calling Beattie "a traitor".

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald's offer to unionists – made at the Easter Sunday commemoration in Milltown Cemetery in Belfast – was of "partnership" to build unity. Celebrating the "martyred" dead will continue to be party ritual, but the game plan until polling day is to encourage transfers from non-Sinn Féin nationalists and perhaps even non-voters that could secure fifth and sixth seats.

Thus – not at all incidentally – continuing the relegation of the anti-violence party that once led northern nationalism and has recently seen something of a resurgence, the SDLP.

Comparative lack of presentational talent in northern Sinn Féin sees McDonald arrive to handle or at least front up big moments in the guise of emphasising the party's 32-county status (one shared only by the tiny but dogged Greens, People Before Profit and Aontú).

Those wooed by a "new" Sinn Féin could push northern leader Michelle O'Neill ahead of Donaldson as putative first minister. The DUP has all but committed to collapsing a Sinn Féin-led Stormont, a worrying sign for a fragile democracy and its institutions.

*This article was amended on Tuesday, April 19th and Thursday, April 21st, 2022

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