Friday, 25 March 2011

The Ballot Box and the Grammar Book

Purdah began yesterday in Northern Ireland, and, contrary to the spin, it looks like there will be no big announcement from Nelson McCausland regarding an Ulster-Scots Academy. As readers will be able to gauge from press articles, radio phone-ins or general conversation, the notion of an academy is very unpopular with ordinary Unionists, so the Minister always had something of a tightrope to walk vis-à-vis pleasing an important activist constituency and not bringing his party into disrepute with the voters. He was a very skilled prevaricator when it came to delaying the promised languages strategy too, behaviour that will for many people have served to confirm their suspicions that the Minister's antipathy towards Irish easily trumped any desire on his part to do something for Ulster Scots.

There will clearly be great pressure on Sinn Féin to take the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure after the Assembly election, pressure that will be all the stronger if the party loses control of Education, which is probably of more importance to Irish. However, that scenario seems unlikely, since it is generally accepted that the largest party will most likely wish to take Finance as its first choice under the d'Hondt system, and, recent speculation notwithstanding, that largest party is still likely to be the DUP. If the DUP takes Finance as its first choice, then Sinn Féin, likely to be the second-placed party, will be able to take Education. Given the controversy surrounding the abolition of the 11-plus, however, it would definitely need to choose the Department at the first available opportunity.

While theoretically a DUP Finance Minister could neuter any attempts to promote Irish more vigorously through DCAL, in practical terms, to win the support of the Assembly, he or she would still need to offer a reasonable settlement to the largest Nationalist party. Readers will recall that, last time around, DUP and Sinn Féin Departments did well, while the SDLP and UUP felt the squeeze, with the latter's Health Minister Michael McGimpsey in a particularly difficult position.

Among the bigger reasons the DUP might have for ditching Culture is, strangely enough, that proposed Ulster-Scots Academy. As stated here before, if Nelson McCausland were to remain Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure after May and attempt a U-turn on an academy, he would instantly lose all credibility. Better for him and for the party to avoid any uncomfortable dilemmas by bailing out now.

Of course, back in the first Assembly, the UUP took Culture, partly to balance against the effect of Education then being in the hands of Martin McGuinness. Could that scenario arise this time around? Well, given that Culture was such a late pick on the last occasion the d'Hondt procedure was run, it could theoretically go to any party — although the Irish-language community would be likely to experience extreme disillusionment at Sinn Féin, the only party in the Assembly with an Irish name, were it not to take the Department at an early stage.

That said, barring an attempt by the UUP to "out-right" (in James Molyneux's words) the DUP, any party's candidate would be better as Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure than the present incumbent.

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