DUP and Sinn Fein brace for election

Arlene Foster, the now former First Minister of Northern Ireland, has said she is “open to talks” to prevent the province’s devolved institutions from collapsing, according to the News Letter.

Local parties have seven days to resolve their differences before James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State, has to call an election – which the Belfast Telegraph reports she warns will be “brutal” and possibly result in a return to ‘direct rule’ – the governing of Northern Ireland from Westminster.

Danny Kinahan, a liberal-minded Ulster Unionist MP, has already called for the British Government to introduce reforms to the devolved institutions.

Foster’s ejection from the post of First Minister followed automatically from the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister on Monday. Under Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangements, the Executive can only operate with the participation of both unionists and nationalists.

McGuinness’ decision is in marked contrast to his track record as a devolved politician, in which he’s “befriended enemies” and apparently acted as Sinn Fein’s dovish side. If he chooses to bow out of politics now, his successor may introduce a much more confrontational dynamic.

As Sam McBride of the News Letter points out, Sinn Fein’s usual habit, under McGuinness, of collaboration with the Democratic Unionists has been put under unsustainable pressure by the ongoing revelations about the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal, which we looked at last month. The party now says it’s ready to face the electorate.

Parliamentary arithmetic means that the fate of the DUP, which eight Westminster MPs and an increasingly close working relationship with the Government, will be a matter of close interest in London. Naomi Long, the leader of the Alliance Party, has already accused the Prime Minister of compromising her ‘neutrality’ on Ulster in order to keep hold of her allies.

Unfortunately, an election is unlikely to solve anything: the power-sharing system means that it is almost impossible, barring a shock return to pre-eminence of the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP as an alternative cross-community government, for an election to actually change the government.

There is some speculation that the republicans could capitalise on the RHI fallout and edge into first place. However that very prospect may also hold the DUP vote together – although the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have equal power, the symbolism matters deeply to unionist votres.

On the other hand,  Sinn Fein’s vote has proved less solid in recent times. This change of tack is likely in part a bid to regain their image as the ‘tough’ nationalist party.

Labour slumps in latest Welsh polls

According to Wales Online, the latest polling finds that Labour’s support in the country has slumped to its lowest level since the final days of Gordon Brown’s premiership.

Professor Roger Scully, an expert in Welsh elections, says that although the party remains comfortably ahead of its rivals such results bring it to a “tipping point” where it started “losing significant numbers of constituency seats” in the Assembly.

Indeed they would fall to just 22 overall, with the Conservatives moving back to their pre-2016 total of 14 and into joint-second place with Plaid Cymru. UKIP and the Liberal Democrats would each pick up an extra seat, rising to eight and two respectively.

The research also highlighted the potential impact of new boundaries and the cut in constituency numbers on Welsh Labour’s position. Under both arrangements the Tories would have their current total of eleven seats, and Plaid their three – but Labour would have just 14, out of 28 total.

However, Scully does point out that Labour are currently benefiting from “the lack of a single strong opponent”, implying that the party may have further yet to fall if the Conservatives can start landing more blows on Carwyn Jones’ administration.

Scottish Conservatives accuse Nationalists of ‘wasted decade’

A preoccupation with independence has led the SNP to neglect the day-to-day government of Scotland since they came to power in 2007, according to the Scottish Tories.

The Daily Express reports that Conservative research has identified 51 promises made by the Nationalists ahead of the 2007 and 2011 Holyrood elections which have gone unfulfilled, on subjects ranging from class sizes and school performance to NHS waiting times and major infrastructure projects such as a new Forth crossing and broadband uptake.

Meanwhile business leaders have warned Nicola Sturgeon against holding another independence referendum whilst Kenny MacAskill, a former SNP Justice Secretary now touting a Lab-Nat pact at the next general election, argued that the economic case for independence is now “more complicated” than it was in 2014.