The stage is now set, following the decision at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis on January 28th 2007 by an overwhelming majority to give support to and
to join the Board of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Prime Minister Blair and Taoiseach Ahern have confirmed that the Northern Ireland Assembly elections will take place on March 7th.
Statements have come from the DUP, the majority Unionist party in the now dissolved Transitional Assembly, welcoming the Sinn Féin decision with the caveat that, although words are fine, to convince them to join Sinn Féin in the top ministerial offices and in the Joint Executive they need to see action on the ground.
Just before the Transitional Assembly was dissolved actually on its last day Dawn Purvis, the new leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, took the seat of the late David Irvine who died of a heart attack in January. Before his death he had agreed to take the whip of the Ulster Unionist Parrty in the Assembly.
As he had been a Loyalist paramilitary David Irvines funeral service was remarkable in Northern Ireland terms. Representatives of all parties, including Sinn Féin and the DUP, attended. On behalf of the British and Irish governments and parties both Prime Minister and Taoiseach publicly expressed their deep appreciation of the part Irvine had played in the peace process in bringing his Loyalist paramilitary colleagues to the negotiating table.
Tony Blair has stated that a positive outcome of the elections in March must be an agreement by the DUP to join the Joint Executive with Sinn Féin by March 26th.
Although that may be his devoutly wished aspiration it is based on the expectation that the elections will produce the same distribution of power as existed in the recently dissolved Assembly. This of course consisted of members appointed by the Secretary of state who had been elected to the Assembly at the previous election. That Assembly had been suspended for four years because of failure to do what Blair now expects from the March poll.
So what are the possible outcomes of this contest? The one expected, based on experience, is that Paisleys DUP will hold the largest number of elected members from the Unionist community and that Sinn Féin will return as the largest Nationalist party.
In such a case and following Sinn Féins historic decision on policing the St. Andrews Agreement will require the DUP to share the top two offices of First and Deputy First Minister.
However, as in other elections, other possibilities cannot be discounted especially as the impetus of the Sinn Féin decision on policing, that arising from the demise of David Irvine and that from the eulogy and credit he was given may have some effect on the level of electoral support.
The DUP will no doubt argue during the campaign that they have forced the pace on Sinn Féin to join in the Policing Service while Sinn Féin will be claiming that it was their efforts which led the peace process and the more democratic structures agreed for a power-sharing Executive.
Paisleys party will drive to extend and at least hold their dominance over their rivals the Ulster Unionist Party and Sin Féin will hope to increase their lead over the SDLP.
If the dynamics should change and there is a return of support to the Ulster Unionists and Paisley fails to carry his diisident dozen with him there is always a chance that the Unionist balance could change sufficiently to even prevent the DUP from being the largest party in the Assembly.
In such a case they might rue the change to the Belfast Agreement they insisted upon at St. Andrews. This was that the party with the highest number of seats in the Assembly would be able to claim the office of First Minister.
If there was a reduction in DUP members elected and Sinn Féin really made serious inroads into SDLP support it might conceivably result in Sinn Féin becoming the party able to claim the First Ministers position, a totally unexpected outcome. There would certainly be some head scratching and banging a very problematical situation indeed.
However, there might also be sufficient interest for more voters, those who have hitherto opted out of politics, to rearrange the political landscape. Something of the sort is necessary to create a balancing element and to improve the chances of the new Assembly to be more successful than its predecessors.
For their mandate the competing parties will have to present policies within the framework of the 1998 Belfast Agreement and their party manifestos will be of great interest. If they wish to make progress they will have to put aside some of the usual stuff of conflicting shibboleths.
In the next few weeks leading up to March 7th we can expect well and ill founded rumours to be circulated. The special factories will be in full swing as part of what masquerades as serious politicking in Northern Ireland and old slogans will be refurbished and given an updated gloss. The electorate will do well if they ignore the attempt to capitalise on such distortions that will be peddled as truth.