The Stormont poll which no one wants will be the most crucial crossroads election in Northern Ireland’s history since the first Assembly election in 1998.
No matter who wins the blame game as to who triggered Thursday’s election, one clear fact is certain – it was caused by the Renewable Heat Incentive debacle, which is expected to cost Ulster taxpayers almost £500 million over the next 20 years, or £85,000 daily.
The two main power-sharing partners – the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein – are blaming each other for the crisis. Both parties are predicted to suffer at the polls, even taking into account that the number of Assembly members is being cut from 108 to 90 – or one MLA slashed in each of the 18 constituencies.
At stake primarily is the battle to become Stormont First Minister, which under the 2006 St Andrews Agreement goes to the largest party, compared to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which opted for the largest community designation – unionist or nationalist.
Sinn Fein is blaming the DUP’s Arlene Foster for the RHI scandal and is facing its best chance for two decades of becoming Northern Ireland’s largest party. It is already the dominant party in nationalism.
The DUP campaign is aimed at stopping Sinn Fein’s Northern leader Michelle O’Neill from becoming First Minister.
The DUP is looking over its shoulder at community anger at the RHI scandal. Can the DUP retain its core vote and prevent defections to the liberal-leaning Ulster Unionists, or the more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party?
As for Sinn Fein, it hopes to again ‘see off’ a challenge from the moderate nationalist SDLP, the latter fielding a ticket of new blood younger candidates to crush the stereotype the SDLP has become the ‘old men in grey suits’ of Irish nationalism.
The electoral card Sinn Fein must play is to eat into the electorally lucrative Catholic middle class, whilst holding firmly onto traditional hardline republican rural and urban heartlands.
It must convince such heartlands that the Stormont project is working and there should be no return to armed struggle – which is the key message of violent dissident republicans, who within the past few days attempted to kill a police officer with a booby trap bomb.
Sinn Fein could also face a tough electoral threat in some constituencies from the Hard Left People Before Profit party, as well as the Greens, who are contesting all 18 constituencies.
Thursday’s poll outcome will have a significant bearing on politics in the Republic. If things go well for Sinn Fein and the party emerges as ‘top dog’, it could push hard for a snap General Election in the Dail.
Even if things go wrong and Sinn Fein again ends up playing second fiddle to the DUP in the MLA numbers game, republicans could still push for a Dail election to take the political heat off a poor showing in the North.
A snap Dail poll could leave Sinn Fein in exactly the same position as it currently held in the North – a minority partner in a Leinster House government.
The real danger for all parties, but especially the ‘Big Two’ in Thursday’s Stormont poll is that community anger at RHI could translate into voter apathy and the turnout could fall below the 50 per cent level.
When the results are finalised next weekend, all eyes will focus on Northern Ireland Tory Secretary James Brokenshire (pictured), who must encourage the Northern Irish parties to cut a deal and restore the devolved Assembly.
If these efforts fail, he has three choices – call a second Stormont poll, which could inevitably fuel even further voter apathy; impose Direct Rule from Westminster, which will see massive austerity cuts imposed on the North; or opt for the contentious Joint Authority, which would see Northern Ireland governed jointly by London and Dublin – a move which could provoke a violent dissident loyalist backlash.
The most likely solution if there is no immediate return to a devolved Stormont is that Brokenshire will extend the negotiation period well into late 2017 to ensure some kind of deal is hammered out.
The main Stormont Opposition parties – the UUP and SDLP – will be hoping voters return an alternative Executive to the outgoing DUP/Sinn Fein version. This would see a return to the UUP/SDLP Executive of the early 2000s run by David Trimble and Seamus Mallon.
However, failure to make significant gains from the DUP and Sinn Fein could cost UUP boss Mike Nesbitt and SDLP leader Colm Eastwood their jobs at the helms of their respective parties.
Only one party looks set to be the potential power broker from this poll no one wants – the centre Alliance. This is not only the election no one wants; but it could throw up the result no one wants – or expects!