Alex Kane has written a very good article in The Newsletter, analysing in the starkest manner I have seen yet the complete failure of Northern Ireland's unionist parties to pass the Ronseal test: they don't do what it says on the tin.
And we're not just talking about the additional adjectives here; I think most people realised a long time ago that they appear to be there just for comedy value: the Democratic Unionist Party seems to be run on Leninist lines of authority; the Ulster Unionist Party have problems with geography; the Progressive Unionist Party has been regressing ever since the sad demise of David Ervine, and NI21 appears to be a reference to its membership numbers.
No, what Alex is getting at is the abject failure of the main unionist parties to put forward a positive case for the union of Northern Ireland with Great Britain. To be fair to Basil McCrea, NI21 at least can see what the problem is, though time will tell if Basil is the answer (hint: Basil is not the answer, unless the question is what goes well with tomatoes and mozzarella).
Anyway, Alex Kane's article is an interesting read, but there is one aspect of it with which I disagree. He states
There is absolutely nothing on offer, because the DUP is too concerned with keeping someone in the First Minister’s office, while the UUP is running around trying to find something – anything, it seems – to save itself from further electoral decline.
I think Alex is confusing ends with means. Here's a wee secret neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin want you to know: Martin McGuinness is never going to be First Minister of Northern Ireland. The amendments to the process for electing the FM, inserted at the behest of the DUP at St. Andrew's, mean this is never going to happen.
Unionists currently have 13 more seats in the Assembly than Nationalists. It would require Nationalists to get a net gain of 7 seats before they would be the biggest grouping. To give an idea of how difficult that would be, the last election saw Unionists come out as before, Nationalists -1 and Others (Alliance) +1. In 2007 Others gained 2, Nationalists gained 1 and Unionists lost 1. So over the past decade, Nationalists have made a net gain of zero over unionism. It's going to be a slow process, to put it mildly.
But, let's suppose for argument's sake, that Nationalists seem poised to overtake Unionists as the largest designation. Sinn Féin is easily the largest Nationalist grouping, but the SDLP have retained a sticky (see what I did there?) 10%-12% of the vote. In the name of saving the FM's name plate for a Unionist, the DUP will hoover up the UUP vote, and the UUP will willingly comply, sounding their own death knell.
For you see, the amendments from St. Andrew's mean that the First Minister is not necessarily from the largest designation: if the largest party of the largest designation is not the largest party overall, then it is the largest party overall that nominates the First Minister. Under those circumstances the DUP will be able to squeeze the unionist vote in a way that Sinn Féin will never be able to do to the SDLP.
16C(6) If at any time the party which is the largest political party of the largest political designation is not the largest political party—
(a) any nomination to be made at that time under section 16A(4) or 16B(4) shall instead be made by the nominating officer of the largest political party
In the event that nationalists appear likely to become the majority, the DUP will swallow up/merge with the Ulster Unionists.
The DUP is always likely to be a bigger party in the Assembly than Sinn Féin.
In fact, it quite suits Sinn Féin's longer term agenda to be always the bridesmaid and never the bride, which is why they agreed to the procedure, though I am sure they will complain about the unfairness of the "unionist veto" should the circumstances ever arise.
So on this one aspect, I think Alex is wrong. Sinn Féin is never going to occupy the First Minister's office, or at least not in the next 20 or more years. The DUP knows that, and Sinn Féin knows that, but they keep it secret in another of their little understandings, to allow the DUP to permanently squeeze the life out of Mike Nesbitt's party, for that then gives Sinn Féin its greatest chance to kill off the SDLP once and for all.
And with his witterings today about Unionist unity, Mr. Nesbitt took one more step towards leading his party (and the SDLP) into oblivion, and one step back from making the case for the union.