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Last Updated: Monday, 26 February 2007, 08:06 GMT
A bread and butter election?
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

In the past the broadcast media, myself included, have been criticised for concentrating our campaign coverage on unionist-nationalist constitutional politics to the exclusion of the so called bread and butter issues.

Our response has tended to be that we are reporting campaigns as they are, not as some might like them to be.

vote
Bread and butter issues are dominating the election campaign

The fact is that our main local parties define themselves in relation to their attitude to the border.

Instances of voters transferring their allegiance from, say, the DUP to Sinn Fein after close reading of those parties' manifesto commitments on health and education are few and far between.

That said, I think I may be beginning to detect a shift towards bread and butter concerns in this campaign.

Both unionist and nationalist candidates report far more comments from the voters they meet on the doorsteps about water charges, rates, the health service and so on than about the policing and power sharing problems the British and Irish governments tried to iron out at St Andrews.

To some extent this may be because neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein want to play up disquiet over the policy shifts they have made or are contemplating.

To do so would play into the hands of the anti-St Andrews agreement unionists and the dissident republicans who are trying to make the big parties' lives difficult within their own core constituencies.

However, it may also be that the voters have had enough years of the peace process to work out the general drift in local politics.

Moreover, the imminence of the new water charges and rate demands makes those concerns more tangible than fears of a return to violence or worries about Northern Ireland's future constitutional status.

But if the bread and butter issues are moving right up the agenda, voters still face a problem in working out how to influence affairs via the cumbersome system inherited from the Good Friday Agreement.

Stormont
A new executive must agree a programme for government

This is not an election in which an unpopular government can be thrown out in favour of an opposition promising to reverse its policies.

Whichever combination of local politicians emerge triumphant, they will still face major problems in agreeing a coherent programme for government which addresses the voters concerns whilst balancing the competing priorities of four different parties.

DUP negotiated changes may ensure less fragmentation between individual ministers pursuing contrasting agendas.

However, it's still unclear whether those changes will lead to a smooth running executive or to administrative deadlock and constant vetoes.

Various alternatives have been suggested to the system of designations and parallel consent designed by the Good Friday Agreement.

A "voluntary coalition" reliant on a heavily weighted majority has been the option supported both by Alliance and the DUP.

Such a system would enable a government to be formed around a coherent policy platform.

By unfreezing the designation system it could also allow a degree of flexibility which might make it easier for the smaller parties seeking to break into the Stormont system.

It could also provide a ladder by which the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists could clamber back to a position of greater influence.
Politicians at St Andrews talks
The election follows the St Andrews agreement

The DUP says it wants to ensure the mandatory coalition is only a temporary emergency measure.

But this will be met with extreme scepticism from Sinn Fein, who will view it as code for excluding republicans from power, and by nationalists in general who may believe it is merely a backdoor attempt to reinstate majority rule.

Vowing that a system is only temporary is easy enough. Negotiating a functioning alternative is a bit harder.

All this talk of systems of government may baffle voters concerned about the bills hitting their doormats right now.

But the question is this - if a future executive based on a mandatory coalition fails to fulfil their expectations by the time of the next assembly election, how would they go about voting it out of office?

mark.devenport@bbc.co.uk


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