Thursday is another big crossroads election in Northern Ireland. The centre parties are fighting to ensure it does not descend into another political Green v Orange poll, but as in mainland Britain, the elections could become a referendum - but about whom?
In England, Scotland and Wales, the Tories are battling to try and prevent Thursday’s elections from deteriorating into an unofficial referendum on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s premiership in the aftermath of the Partygate scandals.
Also in Scotland, the Scottish National Party will see the elections as a chance to garner yet more support for a second referendum on independence. The SNP’s thinking is bluntly simple - the more elected representatives it gets, the greater the cry for the so-called ‘IndyRef2’.
But what will be the real issues in Northern Ireland, or is it simply a case of whether the DUP or Sinn Fein will become the largest party in the Assembly, thereby claiming the coveted post of First Minister?
A DUP victory will not necessarily mean a return of the Executive. The DUP pulled its First Minister out of the Executive in opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
If Sinn Fein becomes the largest party, would any of the three Unionist parties decide to nominate a deputy First Minister even though both posts carry equal weighting politically.
Would a Sinn Fein victory in terms of MLAs trigger calls for a border poll? If the DUP finishes as the leading Unionist party, but not the largest party in Stormont, would it collapse the Assembly entirely and shift its power base to Westminster opting instead for some form of Direct Rule rather than work with a Sinn Fein First Minister?
If Boris Johnston survives as both Tory Party leader and PM after Thursday, would he trigger legislation which would effectively politically castrate the Protocol in the hope that the DUP would re-enter an Executive at Stormont?
Then again, if Johnson can introduce legislation to radically amend the Protocol, could he also introduce similar legislation which changes how the First and deputy First Ministers are elected.
Initially, under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the First Minister came from the largest designation. The DUP and Sinn Fein agreed under the St Andrews Agreement of 2006 that this would be changed to the largest party.
But in that era, the then Paisley-led party never envisaged a day when Sinn Fein would totally eclipse the SDLP in terms of retaining its grip on the electorally lucrative Catholic middle class in Northern Ireland.
If the Alliance ‘bounce’ continues under Naomi Long, will the rules have to be changed to allow her to become deputy First Minister? Indeed, Thursday will also be a referendum if that ‘bounce’ was a genuine swing to progressive liberal centre ground politics, or simply a protest vote against the DUP and Sinn Fein because of how those two parties have behaved at Stormont?
In the Unionist community, will the TUV break the political mould that it is simply a ‘one trick pony’ run by a sole MLA, and will the so-called ‘Beattie Bounce’ under UUP leader Doug Beattie see a rebirth of the party which once boasted almost 30 seats in the 1998 Assembly.
If the number of Unionist MLAs returned was evenly split among the DUP, UUP and TUV, would that add weight to the calls from the pro-Union community to change the rules for electing a First Minister back to the original Good Friday Agreement stance of the largest designation? Would that be enough to save both Stormont and power-sharing, or would republicans and nationalists ‘take the hump’ and refuse to nominate a deputy First Minister?
And what’s the fate of the Independent candidates, and smaller parties such as People Before Profit, the Greens, Aontu and the Progressive Unionist Party? Will the so-called ‘Executive Five’ - DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, UUP and Alliance effectively sweep the boards politically?
Or would we see Westminster deciding to agree a return to the ‘six seats per constituency’ as existed in 1998 rather than the ‘five-seater’ model as exists at present to ensure the smaller parties and Independents `are in with a real chance of gaining a few extra seats?
The worst case scenario is that devolution falls because an Executive cannot be formed. In which case, we will see many of the 90 MLAs who are out of a job politically scrambling for local government seats in next year’s planned council elections.
Then again, if the waiting lists are to be realistically reduced; if the effects of the pandemic are to be addressed; if more jobs are to be created; if the Protocol is to be revamped, scrapped, amended or kept in place - then a functioning power-sharing Executive will be required.
Sinn Fein and the DUP need that Executive. The DUP needs the Executive to work otherwise it will be blamed for the millions of pounds which will be handed back to the British Exchequer.
Sinn Fein needs the Executive to work so that it can prove to the Southern electorate at the next Dail General Election that it is a party capable of running a coalition government and is not merely the puppet of the Provisional IRA’s ruling Army Council.
I wonder what the late Terence O’Neill, the former Northern Ireland Prime Minister who first uttered the phrase ‘crossroads election’ would make of Thursday’s poll?
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Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.