Will voters use the forthcoming elections to the Northern Ireland assembly to punish ministerial incompetence?
After all, these elections are all about the Democratic Unionists’ Arlene Foster and her disastrous mishandling of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, the energy subsidy she previously introduced as enterprise minister without putting cost controls in place, thus racking-up a £500m liability for the Northern Ireland Executive.
Her refusal to stand aside as First Minister and allow an independent investigation triggered a sequence of events that collapsed the power-sharing executive that runs Northern Ireland, necessitating this poll.
The electorate offers its verdict on Thursday.
So far, there has been a predictable rhythm to the campaign. Cautious and insular, the parties have all been here before and know how to harvest their vote. Elections in Northern Ireland are effectively a race to see who can shore up their core the most, (made harder by the overall reduction in seats from 108 to 90 across 18 multi-member constituencies).
Foster knows she is fighting for her political life. Her woeful handling of the RHI scandal, exposed her severe limitations as a politician. Brittle and stubborn, she further damaged her reputation at the DUP’s manifesto launch by refusing to take any questions from journalists on the basis she had “man flu“.
Her pitch was a sectarian “Project Fear” warning that Sinn Fein might overtake the DUP as the largest party and push for an early referendum on Irish unity. Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams joked after the launch on Twitter: “Just for the record, I didn’t give Arlene the flu.”
Foster’s campaign might be ugly, but in Northern Ireland’s hyper-tribal polity, it could prove effective. If the DUP suffers a reversal, however, her colleagues may yet think twice about re-nominating her for First Minister/deputy First Minister.
Meanwhile, as Sinn Féin’s new “leader in the North” Michelle O’Neill finds herself in exactly the same situation as Foster was 12 months ago at the last assembly elections – taking over from a male predecessor who had been a mainstay of the political process for years.
O’Neill is so far proving formidable. She benefits from the fact the wind is blowing in Sinn Féin’s sails. After all, the reasons for this election – the DUP’s incompetence – will play well among republicans and nationalists.
Sinn Féin’s pitch is therefore about ensuring “equality, respect and integrity”, with O’Neill claiming this is “the most important election since the Good Friday Agreement”. The Shinners are pushing for the strongest possible mandate in what O’Neill describes as the “short, sharp negotiation” that will take place after the elections. She says she doesn’t want a new agreement, “just the implementation of previous ones”.
In terms of the other parties, Mike Nesbitt, a former television journalist turned leader of the Ulster Unionists, deserves credit for trying to appeal beyond the tribe. He has offered his second preference vote to the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party. Tactically, he has to try something to dislodge the UUP from the political sediment.
Both the UUP and SDLP are essentially fighting for relevance in these elections. They constantly claim the electorate has had enough of the SF-DUP duopoly and wants change, it’s just that the voters never vote for it.
Following Thursday’s results comes the hard bargaining, if the parties are to get power-sharing up and running again and avoid a period of direct rule from the Northern Ireland Office. Both Foster and O’Neill need to be seen to strike a hard bargain. Foster will be desperate to claim she is still in control of events. O’Neill, the newcomer, will want to show she is no pushover.
If she is smart, Foster will push for an early restoration of the executive and try to put this mess behind her. If, on the other hand, there is a lengthy delay, the election could become a running sore. After all, as the DUP may yet have to be reminded, power-sharing lies at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement.