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Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill and DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson at last night's BBC leaders' debate. BBC

Brian Rowan There's nothing dull about this election in Northern Ireland - it's hard to call

The former BBC correspondent says every party is playing it safe and steady ahead of tomorrow’s vote.

LAST UPDATE | 4 May 2022

THERE IS A difference between dull and quiet, and it is far too early to put a label on the Assembly election campaign in Northern Ireland.

Up to now, there has been an absence of electricity – nothing yet to light up this story.

Nothing in the leaders’ debate on the BBC last night by way of a stand-out or a knockout line.

Nothing that everyone will be quoting this morning on the eve of Polling Day.

The issues

It was what you would expect at this time; an hour on television and, at times, a thinking round and a talking round some of the questions. Trying to avoid the banana skins.

We still don’t know how long it will take to form a functioning Executive at Stormont once the counting is done. There will be another negotiation. Who knows for how long. We do know from past experience that this can take time – a lot of time and patience.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is still stressing the importance of addressing the issue of the Protocol (the post-Brexit Irish Sea border with its new trading arrangements that have created difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom).

britain-northern-ireland-local-election Jeffrey Donaldson leader of the Democratic Unionist Party reacts while canvassing in Holywood on the outskirts of Belfast. AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

For some, the fight is about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. About the Union.

And, in the standoff, there is again a question about the future of Stormont.

This issue and argument about the sea border is a reminder that politics is not just about what you want, but what comes with it.

Those who shouted loudest for Brexit are shouting loudest about the Protocol. They are two parts in one story. One created the other.

There are, of course, other pressing concerns. In the thinking of many, more immediate and important things to talk about, including a cost of living crisis, the pressures within the health service, a programme for government, a multi-year budget and the need for a functioning Stormont to properly address these matters.

When the Protocol was not being discussed in last night’s leaders’ debate, the focus was on these things.

The vote

As always, elections are about the day – in this case, Thursday; the voting and then the counting.

The polls continue to suggest that Sinn Féin will emerge as the largest party. If they are right, then, in marathon running terms, Michelle O’Neill and her team are through the wall with a comfortable lead and with enough energy to make it to the finish line.

But politics is never that simple.

To go back to the marathon, you have to be tactically smart and run well for the full 26-plus miles.

britain-northern-ireland-election-campaign Michelle O'Neill, centre, Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland, and party members Conor Murphy, left, and John Finucane. AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

It is not over until it is over.

There is no room for complacency. You can’t switch off.

It is a race that you run quietly, at an even pace across its distance.

This is what Sinn Féin has been doing.Of course, it reads the polls, sees the numbers, and there is a quiet determination, perhaps even a quiet confidence, about getting the job done.

The DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson believes that in such circumstances Sinn Féin’s call for a date for a ‘divisive’ border poll will get louder.

This has been his line and his message: “Now is not the time for more division and uncertainty.”

In last night’s debate, he was reminded of the divisiveness of Brexit.

Sinn Féin does not decide a date for such a poll, and does anyone really believe that the UK Government – this UK Government in particular – is giving any consideration to this?

This is the government that did not deliver on a promise to introduce legislation including on the Irish language and a government still considering a solo run on the question of how to address Northern Ireland’s past.

Do not expect a date for a border poll anytime soon.

New shape of Stormont

The Executive Office at Stormont with its First and deputy First Minister is a joint office. One needs the other. They have equal powers.

But the title First Minister, especially in this place, means something. Of course, it does.Sinn Féin as First Minister – if that happens – would be a seismic moment.

The latest poll by the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University for The Irish News, suggests Alliance will have another good election.

One of the so-called ‘smaller’ parties in politics here has been getting bigger.

2022-ni-assembly-election Alliance Party leader Naomi Long with some of her party's candidates at the launch of the Alliance Party Assembly 2022 election manifesto at CIYMS in Belfast. PA PA

You see that trend through a series of elections in 2019, local, European and the UK General Election.

Alliance leader Naomi Long won a seat in the European Parliament and Stephen Farry was elected to Westminster.

We have been watching this third pillar grow within our politics.

I have written previously on the wider significance of this; that on their own, neither Orange nor Green can win any border poll – that the result will be determined by those designated as ‘other’; by their thinking on that question of Union versus unity whenever a vote occurs.

Is Alliance about to make further progress? It is widely anticipated that it will add to its Stormont numbers.

2022-ni-assembly-election SDLP leader Colum Eastwood at the SDLP manifesto launch at The Junction, Dungannon. PA PA

The answers will be in the counting after tomorrow’s vote.

Those are the numbers that really matter for Sinn Féin, the DUP, for Alliance, the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, TUV, the Green Party, People Before Profit and a number of Independents.

The numbers that will decide the ‘what next’ in the politics of this place.

There is nothing dull about this election. We may just be experiencing the quiet before the next storm.

Brian Rowan is a journalist and author. He is a former BBC correspondent in Belfast. Brian is the author of several books on Northern Ireland’s peace process. His new book, “Political Purgatory – The Battle to Save Stormont and the Play for a New Ireland” is out now at Merrion Press.


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