Assembly race produces dead heat

Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson were both satisfied with their parties' outcome

So at long last all the results are in.

Satisfaction for the DUP and Sinn Fein, who increase their mutual dominance.

Soul searching for the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, who both have to consider what future direction they can take to regain relevance.

Tom Elliott's clash with Sinn Fein supporters in Omagh gives the impression he will position the UUP as TUV-lite.

However a sizeable section of his Stormont team are closer to Alliance in their outlook.

Sinn Fein's victory in East Antrim and Alliance's failure to secure a second seat in North Down have set up a fascinating mathematical dead heat for the final Executive department.

Little did I think, when I started writing on the Devenport Diaries about it months ago, that the Mrs Wilson versus Mr Wilson's assistant battle would have such far reaching implications.

Steven Agnew's last gasp victory for the Greens leaves Alliance on 8 seats - exactly half the Ulster Unionist total of 16.

Under the D'Hondt system the UUP gets one department, but when its turn comes for a second pick, its seats have half the value.

So it's 8 versus 8. At this point the tie breaker is how many first preference votes each party received, with the UUP vote tally also being halved.

According to this method, Alliance is also ahead, so should take its first ministry before the UUP get a chance for a second.

Done and dusted?

So all done and dusted? Not so fast - could the UUP approach the East Londonderry MLA David McClarty, who stood as an independent after being deselected?

If Mr McClarty is added to the UUP total they edge ahead. The former deputy speaker may exact a price from his former colleagues, but his difference was always with the activists in his area, not the UUP hierarchy.

However, will the Assembly authorities accept that an independent can be counted towards the UUP total, even if he comes from the party "gene pool"?

Equally if the UUP can court Mr McClarty might Alliance approach Steven Agnew (after all the Greens were part of the same United Community group in Stormont)?

If Alliance gets the last department under D'Hondt, they will take this in addition to the Justice Ministry. That is almost certainly going to David Ford again under the cross-community compromise reached by the DUP and Sinn Fein during the Hillsborough negotiations.

The compromise is due to expire in May 2012, but in the meantime it would mean a party with eight MLAs holding twice as many departments as a party with 16 MLAs.

No doubt this will spark protests about a lack of democratic fairness. So expect plenty of machinations before the Stormont ministerial line up is finalised. Indeed I would not be surprised if this one ends up in the courts.

Mark Devenport Article written by Mark Devenport Mark Devenport Political editor, Northern Ireland

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