The politics behind the formation of the new Executive02 February 2024 - by Gráinne Walsh
Two years to the day that the DUP walked out of the Executive, its back. While all eyes have been on the internal workings of the DUP, other parties have had time to formulate policy positions and gameplan the various political twists and turns that lie ahead in 2024 and beyond, not least the next UK General Election.
Michelle O’Neill’s anticipated taking up of the First Minister position is hugely significant – and not just for delighted party and supporters. The new and inverted dynamic of joint leaders in the Executive Office must collectively grapple with two years of policy backlog and address challenges around fiscal sustainability.
With key figures in the party attributing the DUP’s abstention to their struggle with accepting a Nationalist First Minister, this not only reflects the changing balance of power on the hill but the party’s readiness for an election, with the success of the “First Minister for All” mantra a useful way to pick off the SDLP and middle ground vote. Ones to watch: Former Finance Minister Conor Murphy, Mid Ulster’s Linda Dillon, Caoimhe Archibald and John O’Dowd.
With nine new MLAs how will Alliance deploy its increased power as the third largest party? Will it get Justice again or will that go to independent MLA Claire Sugden? Might it even go into opposition? While highly unlikely, there is always that threat. Ones to watch - leader Naomi Long and North Down MLA Andrew Muir.
Reform will remain a focus both in the Executive and on the floor of the Assembly, understandable given that their vote in some circumstances is not worth the same value as their Nationalist and Unionist colleagues.
The UUP confirmed today that they are going into the Executive, despite being excluded from negotiations with government. Who, however, will be minister? The party leader Doug Beattie? The deputy leader Robbie Butler from Jeffrey Donaldson’s Lagan Valley constituency? Could former Health Minister Robin Swann make a comeback? He is a general election candidate after all and the profile would do no harm. Do keep an eye out for East Antrim’s John Stewart.
With South Belfast’s Matthew O’Toole positioned as leader of the opposition since the last election, the opportunity is now for party renewal from the opposition benches. How effective they are in opposition could unlock electoral gain if they can position themselves as a real alternative to the narrative of Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party. Most urgently, the battle to retain two hard fought for Westminster seats in Foyle and South Belfast will be at the forefront of the party’s plans.
With a very long to-do list, from catch-up legislation to transformative initiatives and a few elections thrown in for good measure, it’s going to be a very busy few years.