Over on Slugger, ‘Alan in Belfast’ has published his latest post on the UUP leadership race. One issue which has been raised continually is what the candidates will do about the possibility of an MLA from Sinn Fein becoming First Minister.
The difference between the two candidates appears to be this. If Sinn Fein was the largest party, McCrea, although uneasy with that scenario, would not take action to bring down the Assembly. Elliot has made it clear that he would never go into partnership with a Sinn Fein First Minister. He consistently refers to the selfish way in which the DUP handled the St. Andrews Negotiations. He has vowed to negotiate with the Government with a view to reversing the St. Andrews legislation, which presently provides the largest party – instead of the largest party of the largest designation (as was the position before St. Andrews) – has the right of nomination to the office of First Minister.
Already, Nigel Davenport of the BBC has run the rule over the issue. He has observed:
“The Ulster Unionist leadership contender Tom Elliott has called on the Conservatives to change the rules back to the Good Friday Agreement model. Clearly this would be in the interests of the UUP who may face a squeeze on their vote as part of a unionist/republican battle to top the poll.”
In the last couple of days, a student that I was talking to pointed out to me that if the UUP vote is squeezed, that would further entrench the sectarian divide and delay the day we have normal politics. It is refreshing to know that there are young people thinking ‘outside the box’ in relation to Northern Ireland politics. I wonder if Mr. Elliott has thought of that argument!
There is, of course, an answer to that. The sectarian divide is in people’s heads, not on the result of an election statement. Yes, UUP votes could get squeezed but that is precisely because there would already be an existing sectarian mindset. Changing the rules will not alter that.
It also needs to be remembered that the present power sharing structures are designed for sectarian politics. Indeed, a reversal back to the status quo before St. Andrews is more likely to preserve sectarianism. If there was normal politics, it would always be the largest party that is in the strongest position to head a Government. Why, after all, shouldn’t the Alliance Party, (which is non-designated) be given the chance to nominate for OFM?
On the Hearts and Minds show, Mr. Elliot made the point that there was a referendum on the Good Friday agreement but none on the St. Andrews Agreement. He has called upon the Government to reverse the ‘offending’ part of the legislation on the ground that it bears no legitimacy in the absence of a referendum. He has stated, in the alternative, that the Northern Irish People should have a referendum on the St. Andrews agreement.
This argument needs to be set against the background which was present at the time of St. Andrews. There had not, at that point, been a completed disbandment of the IRA, nor had Sinn Fein accepted the legitimacy of the PSNI. Nor was there agreement, at the time, that the largest Unionist Party would go into Government without those preconditions. The DUP and Sinn Fein held the aces. Without them, there would have been no functioning Stormont.
Mr. Elliott can call for a referendum for all he wishes. The fact is, the DUP, much as I don’t care for them, are the mainstream unionist party. Their majority gave them a mandate to renegotiate St. Andrews on behalf of Unionists. The same could also be said of Sinn Fein in relation to Nationalists.
Of course, the OFM and DFM have equal power in the power-sharing constitution.
The Government’s position is that it will not enact any constitutional change unless there is majority cross community agreement. Owen Paterson made that clear when previously asked if the Government would make legislation to change the current power sharing arrangements to majority coalition – a change which the UUP understandably covets.
Any idea the Government now, particularly as a coalition Government, would take any different approach is complete “pie in the sky.” Tom Elliott probably knows it.