Ireland: 1,000 candidates to stand for Assembly

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The Independent Online
AFTER the phoney war, the real political conflict. The forthcoming elections for a Northern Ireland Assembly look certain to eclipse last week's peace referendum in rivalry, skulduggery and sectarian bitchiness. The power to run Ulster is at stake, and most of the competing parties would cheerfully drive it through each other's heart.

On 25 June, Ulster's 1.2 million voters will choose 108 members for a Stormont with a difference: the first power- sharing administration since the collapse of the Sunningdale government of 1974. It comes equipped with locking devices to ensure that neither "tradition" dominates the other, in the way that Protestant-dominated parliaments did for almost 50 years before the Troubles restarted.

The jockeying for power has already begun. No one is very surprised. Elected members of the assembly will be paid pounds 36,000 a year, plus the same again in expenses and allowances. "This is big bucks over here," said a political insider. "Especially for politicians who have never got paid for anything, and are just in it because they hate each other. Now they are going to get paid for hating the other lot."

A rush of applications is confidently predicted. The electoral deposit has been set deliberately low at pounds 150 to allow the maximum participation by Northern Ireland's myriad fringe parties, practically all of whom will not win a single seat. Each of the 18 constituencies will elect six members under the single transferable vote form of proportional representation. It seems likely that as many as 1,000 hopefuls will present themselves for election, most of them no-hopers and some from eccentric parties who found their way on to the Northern Ireland Forum because of political (and military) correctness.

No such corrective mechanisms operate this time. It is a straight slog between the big boys. Gerry Adams's Sinn Fein is seeking to supplant the SDLP as the biggest nationalist party. The "Shinners" will do well, taking probably 19 of the 44 nationalist seats, and confirming their role as the fastest-growing political party in Northern Ireland. But they are likely to pile up votes in traditional working-class strongholds without breaking through in the marginal middle-class constituencies.

The Unionist political balance sheet is a nightmare. Judged on previous form, the Official, Pro-Agreement Ulster Unionists will pick up 29 seats, the Rev Ian Paisley's Anti-Agreement Democratic Unionists 22 seats, Robert McCartney's maverick UK Unionist Party perhaps three and the parties linked directly to the Loyalist paramilitaries maybe two, depending on whether they reach an electoral pact not to oppose each other. So "moderate" unionists who support the Good Friday Agreement ought to be in a majority.

This encouraging scenario is complicated by the difficulty of UUP leader David Trimble in ensuring that all his candidates follow his party's line. Some are certain to be chosen and elected on an Anti-Agreement ticket. The outcome could be a dominant unionist bloc dedicated to wrecking the Assembly, but particularly the North-South machinery designed to reform and revitalise Dublin-Belfast links.

The Assembly members will not have much to do for their money, at least for the first few months. Sinn Fein members will be lucky to see more than pounds 20 a week of their stipend, the rest going to party funds. At Westminster, legislation is running well behind realpolitik, and the power-sharing body will not be fully operational until some time next year.

The legislature, with powers of law making but not, for the foreseeable future, of tax raising, will have a Cabinet of six to 10 members. Sinn Fein expects to have at least one seat on the body. "Gerry Adams will school your children" was used as a slogan by the No campaign to frighten unionist waverers, but there will be provisions preventing politicians wedded to violence from getting their hands on the levers of power.

It could be an illusion: Mr Adams insists that Sinn Fein has no weapons, but he has signed up to military decommissioning. This may prove the stumbling block. Mr Trimble says he will not meet a Sinn Fein "minister" who does not, or cannot, deliver the IRA's arms. Furthermore, the DUP says it has legal advice that permits wrecking measures to collapse the Assembly. Even the official Unionists talk of bringing it down if it is not to their liking. The shooting may be over, but the war has not ended.