Getting to Grips With the Election
Recently I awarded an Ulster Unionist politician a prize for most extended metaphor in a press release. Today I indulge in much the same myself - taking to Queen's University's climbing wall in an attempt to illustrate the DUP and Sinn Fein's scramble towards the Stormont summit. You can catch that report on BBC Newsline 6.30, and an accompanying article which should be published shortly on the main news website.
The politicians are already on the campaign trail. As motorists will already notice, a fair few posters went up over the weekend. Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams (who called the focus on who might be First Minister a unionist "sham fight") launched a poster today with the slogan 'Leadership across Ireland', consciously emphasising the party's recent success in the Dáil election. The DUP's Peter Robinson handed in his nomination papers in Newtownards, then drove up to Londonderry where he told cancer sufferers that the planned radiotherapy centre at Altnagelvin Hospital will go ahead.
Yesterday, on Inside Politics, I presented the first in a series of special election programmes. The Alliance leader David Ford denied that his party had been unprincipled in taking the Justice department after spending the first half of the Assembly mandate portraying themselves as Stormont's only opposition. Mr Ford insisted that Alliance was making a real difference not just to Justice but to how the Executive conducts its business in general.
Mr Ford's tenure at Justice (assuming he is reappointed on the other side of the election) is scheduled to come to an end in May 2012, when the sunset clause negotiated at Hillsborough comes into effect. If there's no agreement on renewing the cross community appointment, or agreeing to put the department on the same footing as the others, then the Justice Ministry is set to be dissolved.
The Alliance leader can't see any better alternative than the current compromise. He acknowledged that "we have a history in Northern Ireland that we always manage to have a little bit of a crisis over this" but played down the prospects of a repeat of the Hillsborough talks as May 2012 looms.
Whatever happens to Justice, Mr Ford believes Alliance is on a trajectory when it could get one of the ministerial posts on the basis of its mandate, via the "D'Hondt lucky dip".
My other guest was UKIP's Henry Reilly who insisted his party, which is pledging to run eight candidates, isn't a single issue pressure group. UKIP hasn't yet published its Stormont manifesto, but when it does Councillor Reilly promises it will be radically different from its Westminster platform.
That document called for the abolition of the Stormont assembly and its replacement by a gathering of Northern Ireland's 18 MPs. The MPs would spend three weeks out of every month working on UK wide issues and the fourth on devolved matters. UKIP also backed an English parliament and rewriting the Barnett formula to address what it called the disadvantage caused to English residents.
Councillor Reilly told me that the party has now opted to "keep the MLAs but halve their expenses". He said UKIP is concerned about the disparity between Scotland and England, but claimed that far from losing out under their proposals Northern Ireland would in fact get more cash. So their Stormont manifesto should make an interesting read.
Inside Politics will be working its way through a range of parties standing in the election as the campaign continues.
P.S. The Campaign for an English Parliament points out that the UKIP idea of letting English MPs meet one week a month for English-only days does not amount to their idea for a full English Parliament.