Last May’s Assembly election campaign was a pretty quiet one, all things considered. In the end the DUP held its 38 seats, Sinn Féin lost one. Some small parties saw success, but the political landscape did not shift significantly.
Despite the UUP and SDLP forming an Official opposition, it seemed things were generally working out as planned at Stormont.
However, persistent calls from Sinn Féin and opposition parties for First Minister Arlene Foster to stand down have changed the situation entirely. The absence of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness due to health problems, Gerry Adams admitted, has not helped matters.
Sinn Féin’s Declan Kearney has said that if Mrs Foster does not stand aside we may be looking at another Assembly election. The DUP’s Gregory Campbell says bring it on.
If an Assembly election is to be called it may be like no other. The priorities and messaging of parties’ campaigns may be very different. Under new legislation the next election will see 90 MLAs returned, as opposed to 108; five MLAs per constituency, not six. It’s all to play for!
On messaging, we could see the DUP’s overarching mission revolve around seeking a renewed mandate for Arlene Foster, their acclaimed leader of unionism; much more about keeping Arlene firmly in as First Minister than holding off Martin McGuinness.
If the DUP is returned by another significant margin, can rivals argue against Mrs Foster’s assertion the electorate has confidence in her, her leadership and that’s what matters?
Should Martin McGuinness remain absent we may see more a party-driven rally from Sinn Féin. Last May, his candidacy in his native Foyle constituency was a huge talking point. Might this campaign be somewhat lower-key?
The UUP and SDLP have gotten into the rhythm of opposition by showing greater cooperation, like jointly tabling motions in the Assembly. Will the two parties live up to the “vote Mike [Nesbitt], get Colum [Eastwood]” mantra and ask their voters to transfer their 2nd, 3rd, 4th voting preference to each other?
In five-seat constituencies, we should not overlook the potential of small parties to shake things up further. Look at People Before Profit, currently with two seats.
In Foyle, Eamonn McCann has consistency called for an election; he has his sights set on thriving, not just surviving. With Gerry Carroll having topped the poll in West Belfast in May, will the party run a second candidate next time? There are many other constituencies and scenarios to consider.
Just months after our last election, will the electorate be motivated to vote again? Turnout too could have repercussions.
Three days into 2017 and the future of our political institutions may be uncertain, but our politics is never short of excitement. Can the Executive work things out? Will we see an election? Are the party machines ready? Who might gain or be punished at the polls?
Taking everything into account, the next election may be the greatest opportunity yet for voters to vote less along green and orange nationalistic lines and more on individual and party track records, perceptions of competence and dealings with everyday issues.