The Democratic Unionist Party is even saying it “cannot foresee when, if ever” it will sit in government with republicans, with political pundits and the bookies widely predicting it will inflict severe electoral damage on its Ulster Unionist rivals.
On a somewhat contradictory note, it’s been revealed that the DUP leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, was flown to Dublin in a private jet two weeks ago for a dinner meeting with Irish bankers and businessmen. The UUP suggested this showed the DUP was not as dead set against Dublin involvement in Northern Ireland affairs as it pretended, but the DUP defended the trip on the grounds it was a non-political move intended to encourage inward investment and job creation.
Paisley has been predicting a UUP “wipe-out” in the May 5 election and said that David Trimble, his counterpart in the UUP, must be contemplating whether his political career will end with “a rope” or “the electric chair.”
In the nationalist camp, most predictions are that Sinn Fein will do well at the SDLP’s cost, perhaps winning two more seats in Newry/Armagh and Foyle. If the SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, fails to secure John Hume’s old seat in the latter, it could prompt a leadership battle.
It would all seem to add up to an even more unstable political scene after the elections than before.
Despite both the UUP and DUP calling on the SDLP to consider taking part in a voluntary coalition of parties, excluding Sinn Fein, after the elections, the SDLP has stood firm and refused to countenance such a move.
The two unionist parties are predicting the SDLP’s position will change after the election, if its candidates are badly mauled by Sinn Fein at the polls. But under its current leader, Mark Durkan, the SDLP appears resolute against excluding Sinn Fein.
Should Durkan be ousted after the poll, the likeliest candidate to succeed him would be Alasdair McDonnell, the party’s current deputy leader, and he, too, has also come out against excluding Sinn Fein.
“The DUP need to get real,” McDonnell said. “Voluntary coalition is not on the agenda. It’s just not on. The SDLP is not going to renegotiate the agreement for the DUP.”
When nominations closed last Tuesday, a total of 105 candidates were contesting the 18 seats. Fifteen outgoing MPs are defending their seats, while three political veterans are stepping down. The latter are the Ulster Unionist Martin Smyth in South Belfast, the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon in Newry and Armagh, and former SDLP leader John Hume in Foyle. Two party leaders are defending their seats, Durkan in Foyle and Trimble in Upper Bann.
Sinn Fein is the only one of the main four parties that has not published its election manifesto. The party is expected to do so later this week, probably in Foyle to maximize publicity closer to the election.
The DUP manifesto proposes a “voluntary coalition” to exclude Sinn Fein or, failing that, more “accountable” direct rule from London, fewer powers for all-Ireland bodies and greater powers for the police.
The UUP manifesto also proposes a “voluntary coalition” that excludes Sinn Fein and, failing that, greater accountability over direct rule from London. It also wants to maintain the present police reserve and abolish the 50:50 rule for recruitment of Protestants and Catholics.
The SDLP proposes a campaign to persuade unionists of the merits of a united Ireland and the recall of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation to reach a nationalist consensus. It also wants new North-South bodies, radical demilitarization by Easter 2006, the devolution of justice and policing by the end of 2006, and the establishment of a truth and remembrance process.