#AE16: Fresh Start or same old?

04 April 2016 - by Matthew Coyle

The recent, scheduled dissolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly signaled the end of the second full term of an institution that has proved surprisingly resilient in the face of its own potential demise.

That the structures of government have continued to stand, in spite of an especially bruising political discourse, reported public dissatisfaction and more than one existential crisis is a testament, perhaps, to the overall desire for devolution.

Heading into the contest on 5 May, there is no lack of battleground constituencies to focus the mind. Will the DUP consolidate under Foster and take back South Antrim following Danny Kinahan’s defeat of William McCrea in 2010? Will Mike Nesbitt’s confidence translate to gains for his energised party there?

Can Joanne Bunting succeed Peter Robinson in Belfast East, or can the UUP and Alliance capitalise on the loss? With Alliance running three candidates, including former MP Naomi Long, Maggie Hutton splitting from the UUP, and bids by Green Party councillor Ross Brown and the PUP’s Dr John Kyle, that corner of Belfast remains interesting viewing.

In Upper Bann, Sinn Féin will hope to further weaken the rival SDLP, Catherine Seeley’s strong numbers in the general election pointing, potentially, to an end of Dolores Kelly’s tenure. Will this loss be compensated by a gain in Fermanagh and South Tyrone? Will there be an SDLP loss in Belfast South or will they manage to retain two seats thanks to Ruth Patterson’s rivalry with her former DUP colleagues?

The most compelling duel seems set to occur in the North West. New SDLP leader Colum Eastwood will attempt to protect himself, along with his two Foyle colleagues, from the sustained Sinn Féin push, which sees the return of Martin McGuinness to his native Derry. If Eastwood can survive this, retaining his party’s 14 seats along the way, his election can be judged successful.

Looking to some of the smaller parties, might PUP Leader Billy Hutchinson eke out an Assembly seat in Belfast North? Will Green Party Leader Steven Agnew retain his seat in North Down?

Mobilising one’s voters is crucial. Maximising numbers takes on an extra significance as twelve departments reduce to nine and the space around the Executive table becomes much tighter.