The real priorities

By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)

Allocating the block grant from Britain in what the media and the political parties here touchingly call "the budget" may get the lion's share of publicity, following hard on the heels of the amazed reaction to the appointment of multiple victims' commissioners.

Behind the scenes, however, the political parties have other matters on their minds.

Despite all the dutiful rhetoric about justice and poverty and rights and so on, when it comes down to it, a politician's first priority is his or her seat.

They're always watching out of the corner of their eye for the next election.

That's why speculation about Ian Paisley's plans will not go away and it's why pressure will grow for him to announce those plans this year.

Gordon Brown's dither about the 'election that never was' in August and September threw all our local parties into a tizzy.

It flushed out the SDLP's Eddie McGrady, who announced he had no intention of allowing Margaret Ritchie to have a go at South Down. After all, she's not yet 50, 25 years younger than him. What would she know?

Brown also gave the DUP a bad fright. Would Paisley stand for North Antrim again? Of course he would have had to if there'd been an election at such short notice.

When Brown lost his nerve the DUP strategists immediately began to think about ways to avoid being caught short again. We know now there will be no British election this year but it's more than likely Brown will go for it next year.

If he doesn't, he will be forced up against the wire in 2010 and that's never been a happy position for any prime minister to be in - think of Jim Callaghan or John Major. So the odds are on June 2009.

Even Ian Paisley must think twice about running for Westminster at the age of 83 while hanging on as first minister.

On the other hand, if he makes the right decision and indicates he's stepping down as MP he'd need to announce it this year to give his successor, no doubt Ian Og, a chance to demonstrate his credibility.

Some would say it will take a lot longer than a year for him to manage that. Be that as it may, a year is all he's got at the most.

There's another problem for the DUP. There's definitely a European election next year.

Would Brown call a Westminster election the same day as a European election? Why not? It might bring out more voters in England, where not one person in a thousand can name their MEP.

What a headache for the DUP. Who will be their candidate? It will have to be someone who can comprehensively defeat Jim Allister.

Allister knows where the bodies are buried and which cupboards have skeletons in them.

He will relish attacking his former party so the DUP can't risk a nonentity who Allister might destroy in media debates but all their top-ranking figures are MPs.

None of them would want to give up Westminster and you can't do both.

To cap it all, will Allister and other dissident unionists put up candidates in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and South Belfast, thereby guaranteeing those seats will be retained by Alasdair McDonnell and Michelle Gildernew?

Of course they will.

There is so much bad feeling among former DUP stalwarts that they'd rather see anyone else elected than their former colleagues, an outcome which will compound the misery of the UUP.

The cliche that a week is a long time in politics remains true and therefore a year in politics is an eternity. A lot can change. However, the basic problems will not go away.

It would be madness to assume that there will not be a British election in summer 2009. Any party which does not prepare for that eventuality deserves to be hammered.

We do know there is a European election in June 2009 and that parties are already tossing names around, for it is not only the DUP which faces difficulties.

Who is the SDLP's sacrificial lamb going to be?

Compared to these decisions the 'budget' and victims commissioners are a doddle for the DUP.

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© 2008 Irish Republican News