DUP didn’t like being second to Sinn Fein, but it knows it could suffer an even bloodier nose in a re-run
Just two months after Northern Ireland went to the polls, speculation is rife that the DUP is intent on another Assembly election.
The theory goes like this: with the protocol bill making its way through Westminster, the party is now in prime position to win back that unionist support it lost on May 5.
Those voters who opted for Jim Allister’s TUV, or stayed at home, will be motivated to do different.
Sinn Fein has 27 Stormont seats to the DUP’s 25. A few thousand votes heading back to the party in a couple of constituencies could mean it inches ahead and is returned as top dog in the house on the hill.
So Sir Jeffrey Donaldson pockets his protocol gains, refuses to form a new Executive by the Halloween deadline, and the secretary of state calls an election.
The DUP is triumphant, retakes the top spot in Parliament Buildings, and Michelle O’Neill never actually gets to become first minister.
I don’t think this is Sir Jeffrey’s plan at all because it’s political pie in the sky to believe the DUP is destined to emerge victorious in another election.
It lost three seats: North Down, North Antrim, and Strangford. Alex Easton, who left the party last year and stood as an independent, topped the poll in North Down with almost 10,000 votes — more than the two DUP candidates put together.
Even with some sort of resurgence for his former party, it is impossible to believe that it could take his North Down seat off him.
The DUP would have a chance of winning back the seat it lost in North Antrim to Alliance when Patricia O’Lynn pipped Mervyn Storey by 288 votes in the final count.
But, in Strangford, the odds are definitely stacked against it retaking Peter Weir’s seat which went to Alliance’s Nick Mathison.
For it to be in with a shout, the TUV’s Stephen Cooper — who came in a very strong sixth — would have to stand aside, and that’s not likely to happen.
But just say North Down, North Antrim and Strangford did — by a minor miracle for Sir Jeffrey — all go the DUP’s way, that doesn’t mean it would emerge as the largest party.
Brandon Lewis is legally obliged to call an Assembly election if an Executive isn’t formed by October 28.
But deadlines have traditionally proven to be elastic in Northern Ireland, and this isn’t a government averse to changing the rules and the law.
Sinn Fein was significantly ahead of the DUP in terms of the popular vote two months ago — 29% to 21%. Michelle O’Neill has a clear mandate to become first minister.
Calling another election would be seen by nationalists as London denying democracy and re-running the vote to try to ensure a unionist was back in top spot.
I don’t believe even this sorry excuse for a government would be that tactically stupid and reckless, and Sir Jeffrey is too long in the tooth to lobby Lewis to take that action.
It would be a crocodile election on stilts for Sinn Fein. The party would secure a mammoth vote, and the SDLP would be obliterated.
Even the most moderate nationalist would switch to O’Neill’s party to give the DUP the bloodiest of bloody noses.
Sinn Fein could well take a third seat in South Down at the expense of the SDLP’s Colin McGrath.
A second seat in East Derry would also be likely with the SDLP’s Cara Hunter losing out to Kathleen McGurk.
In Upper Bann, Sinn Fein’s Liam Mackle would hope to edge out Alliance’s Eoin Tennyson in such polarised circumstances.
Being twice beaten into second place in a handful of months by Michelle O’Neill’s party would not be a good look for the DUP or unionism.
Rather than another Assembly poll later this year, the party is currently looking towards next May’s council elections.
The objective is for its representatives to up their ground game and stop the TUV gaining fresh momentum by having an array of new councillors returned across Northern Ireland.
Elections are expensive and exhausting, and no party here has the heart for another one so soon. The DUP didn’t like being runner-up to Sinn Fein, but it’s well aware of the risks involved in attempting a re-run.