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As voters go to the polls in Northern Ireland today, the last round of projections makes grim reading for the capital-U unionist parties.

The News Letter reports that Sinn Fein is on 26.6 per cent, according to a University of Liverpool survey, with the Democratic Unionists languishing neck-and-neck with the Alliance Party on 18 per cent.

If borne out, this would not only see the republicans comfortably the largest party at Stormont – and thus entitled to nominate the symbolically-important post of First Minister – but could see the border-neutral Alliance as the second-largest party.

This latter point has prompted some to speculate that Naomi Long could be nominated as ‘deputy’ (in reality co-) First Minister. But this is not the case: the right to nominate falls to the largest party in the second largest designation, and there are not many ‘Other’ MLAs outwith the APNI itself.

Indeed, it could yet be that the Unionists remain the largest designation overall, as their vote is divided between three significant parties (the DUP, Ulster Unionists, and Traditional Unionist Voice) versus just two (Sinn Fein and the SDLP) on the nationalist side.

Should this happen, it will see all of unionism paying the price for the DUP/Sinn Fein stitch up of Stormont which New Labour signed off on in 2007. This saw the right to nominate the FM/DFM transferred from the largest and second-largest designation (thus allowing voters to move between parties) to the largest party in each designation, encouraging voters to pile in behind the biggest to keep the other lot out.

This comes amidst the revelation that Sinn Fein has been reaching out to groups linked with dissident republicans in its efforts to secure a border poll. The party apparently wrote to Saoradh, which is allegedly connected to the New IRA – the group linked to the murder in 2019 of the journalist Lyra McKee.

Both the UUP and the TUV meanwhile will be hoping to benefit from a major DUP setback, with the latter’s leader, Jim Allister, apparently hopeful that he won’t be his party’s only MLA in the next assembly.

These polls will also be causing as much discomfort in Whitehall as in DUP headquarters; whilst the working relationship between the Conservatives and the DUP is not what it once was, the Northern Irish Office know that the outcome most likely to lead to the straightforward creation of a new executive is the latter holding on to the top spot and their claim to the First Minister’s fiction.

If not, it could be a long few months for Brandon Lewis as Northern Ireland lurches through the extensive procedures it has for when its government isn’t functioning. These include weeks of delay whilst the previous executive holds on, then another election, and in the last resort direct rule – although this would require emergency legislation at Westminster.

A good night for Labour?

On the mainland, the situation in the local elections seems positive for Labour in both Scotland and Wales. According to Wales Online, the party is on track to pick up four councils in Wales today.

It doesn’t seem to be bad news for the Conservatives though, who are reportedly on track to hold on to the only council they have under overall control (Monmouthshire) and potentially retake control in Vale of Glamorgan too. (We covered in a previous column how the Party is running a record number of candidates.)

Plaid Cymru is predicted to have a bad night, losing 42 seats and control of Carmarthenshire council, where it governs with the help of independents.

In Scotland meanwhile, Labour look set to retake second place as the popularity of senior Conservatives “plummets” in the take of Partygate, the Scotsman reports. Their poll puts the Tories on 18 per cent, with Labour comfortably ahead on 25 per cent.

One expert interviewed by the Times suggests that this will not necessarily lead to many councils changing hands, but will allow Labour to take their claim to being once against Scotland’s second political force.

Meanwhile Douglas Ross seems to have run into difficulty over whether or not the British Government should release its legal advice on the question of another referendum on independence. This comes after the Scottish Government recently lost a transparency case over its own advice, as mentioned in last week’s column.

He has also stuck to his new, conciliatory line on Boris Johnson, insisting the Prime Minister is “fit for office”.

Unfortunately, despite the litany of failures we looked at last week, Scottish politics remains polarised around the constitutional question and the SNP look set to take about 45 per cent of the vote – their losing share in 2014.

The SNP bad news section

A lot to cover with the elections this week so we’ll do a whistle-stop tour: SNP MP apologises after breaking booze ban on ScotRail train; Nichola Sturgeon blames the war in Ukraine for the census fiasco (but insists it won’t delay independence because priorities); she refuses to apologise over the ferry scandal…

*breathe in*

…the Financial Reporting Council announced an investigation into an accountancy firm linked to a steelworks which got a potentially unlawful cash guarantee from the Scottish Government; and an ex-SNP MP accused of defrauding a separatist group of £25,000 has told a court she didn’t keep her receipts (which seems to be a common bad habit amongst the Nationalists).