As polls show it is on the cusp of becoming the largest party at the Belfast Assembly, Sinn Féin has called on the unionist parties to make it clear if they will take part in the Stormont Executive alongside a Sinn Féin First Minister.
Party leader Mary Lou McDonald made the call after a weekend poll showed her party is on course to emerge from the next Six County Assembly election on May 5 as the largest party.
On 25%, Sinn Féin is eight points ahead of its main unionist rivals the DUP, according to the latest LucidTalk poll. The gap has widened since the last poll in November, with Sinn Féin up one point and the DUP down one.
Of the other main Stormont parties, the poll puts Alliance and the Ulster Unionists in joint third place on 14%, Traditional Unionist Voice on 12% and the SDLP on 11%.
While Sinn Féin’s current Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill looks set to become First Minister in May, uncertainty remains over whether she would have a unionist partner to govern with.
The DUP and UUP both continue to refuse to confirm whether they would participate in a coalition with a Sinn Féin First Minister, or instead collapse the North’s power-sharing government.
Although emotive, the debate around what party is in the office of first minister is mainly symbolic, as the two roles at the head of the powersharing structures are equal and joint, with both having the same authority.
Despite the looming crisis, the DUP has said it is opposed to a change that would give the leaders of the Stormont Executive identical titles as Joint First Ministers.
Scrapping the First and Deputy First Ministers’ titles and making the roles equal in name as well as in practice would have potentially spared the DUP political embarrassment if it indeed emerges from May’s assembly election behind Sinn Féin.
Ms McDonald said her party approached the election with “humility” and was taking nothing for granted.
“The first issue that will arise in the event that Sinn Féin emerges as the largest party and Michelle O’Neill is nominated for first minister, the first question actually is whether or not unionism will nominate to the position of deputy first minister and we’ve heard very worrying responses from unionism on that score,” she told RTE Radio.
Ms McDonald listed the DUP First Ministers her party had governed alongside in the office of Deputy First Minister, such as Ian Paisley Sr, Peter Robinson, and Arlene Foster.
“That parity of esteem and willingness to serve and respect each other has to be echoed by unionism,” she said.
“Michelle will work as first minister, if she is so appointed, for every single citizen, irrespective of where they come from, irrespective of their political views.
“She will carry out her function without fear, without favour and I believe with incredible ability.”
In a plan that cynics have dubbed ‘Operation Save Little Dog’, the Conservative government in London are understood to be keen to shore up the support of the DUP ahead of the Assembly election.
Last week, the Tories made an extraordinary intervention to boost the DUP’s ballot paper appeal and ease DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s return to the Assembly, with an amendment to again allow the North’s MPs to sit at Stormont, known as ‘double-jobbing’. The Tories backed down in the face of strong collective opposition from the other Stormont parties.
The further postponement of Irish language legislation, the stalling of negotiations on the Irish protocol of Brexit, and a delay in the publication of certain census figures are all rumoured to be in the works to prevent the DUP suffering heavy losses in the election.
Meanwhile, the emergence of a series of deeply prejudicial tweets by UUP leader Doug Beattie could help swing voters back behind the DUP.
Tweets by Beattie from ten years ago have emerged which display a shocking level of prejudice on a variety of subjects, including sectarian and misogynistic ‘jokes’, anti-Irish comments about the Famine, and openly racist remarks.
The derogatory messages also refer to members of the Travelling community and people with mental health issues.
Beattie has apologised and escaped pressure to resign, but the scandal points to an unpredictable election campaign, with the survival of the Stormont institutions the main question to be answered.