As the probability of Sinn Féin turning the screws on the DUP increases, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Shaun ‘Turncoat’ Woodward is presumably even now ordering his butler to bring him some options to protect Northern Ireland from government collapse.
The arithmetic is relatively simple to follow; the DUP is curently the largest party in the Assembly, and as a result has a right to the position of First Minister. Sinn Féin, as the second largest party, gets Deputy First Minister. Both positions are required to be filled, and they’re filled in line with the d’Hondt distribution, which gives us the nauseating consociationalist government which has led to so much rapid progress in addressing sectoral issues in Northern Ireland. It was never designed to be efficient, just to stop people shooting one another.
If the First Minister resigns or loses the confidence of his party and is forced to step down, the Deputy First Minister is deemed to have resigned also. If the second largest party, Sinn Féin deigns not to nominate a Deputy First Minister, then the Executive falls. Election within six weeks by law.
Now some electoral mathematics. The DUP has been haemorrhaging support for months now, since the Expenses scandal picked out the ‘Swish Family Robinson’ for special odium, and since the foundation of the Traditional Unionist Voice (which will seem like a nice choice for people disgusted by Iris and Peter). Finally, in a pretty perfect storm, there is a sense that the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force (the worst name in politics ever) is in a position to revive the tory and Ulster Unionist fortunes in the territory.
All of which means that, although unionism would undoubtedly emerge by far the majority constitutional ideology in Northern Ireland, the three way split means the single largest party could well be Sinn Féin. Obviously, that isn’t (and shouldn’t be) acceptable for Unionists, who would be likely to sooner see the sky fall or devolution collapse than SF in the First Minister’s position.
Be certain, Sinn Féin would not take a decision to collapse devolution out of sheer bloody-mindedness. They were considering pulling out before the winter recess over the DUP decision not to quickly devolve Justice and Policing. They may now sense that they would have a reasonable chance to blackmail the DUP by threatening an election, becoming the largest party, bagging Justice and Policing and the possible destabilisation of the DUP, which would forced to unite behind someone other than Paisley’s appointed successor. In any case, departing on the issue of Justice would appear to be a sensible decision for Sinn Féin, if they can’t tease out a concession on the issue.
DUP supporters will be angry that their leader, praised for his intelligence, intellect and vision before this disaster, may have, through his basic failure to report his wife’s financial irregularities when he became aware of them, handed a historic victory to Sinn Féin.
So what can the Secretary of State do?
Assuming the SoS favours protection of the DUP (which I think is a safe assumption, given the alternative), he needs to find a way to convince Sinn Féin to nominate a Deputy First Minister after Peter Robinson’s assumed departure. Assuming that either Nigel Dodds or Arlene Foster (whom I favour) becomes First Minister, the SoS needs to speed up the pace for the creation of a shadow minister for Justice and Policing, get an agreed timetable and get an agreement from the new leader that devolution will happen.
Assuming that this can be sold to Sinn Féin, they can have no reasonable argument for collapsing Devolution.