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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 March 2007, 11:03 GMT
The campaign that never was
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

Fielding a question on Hearts and Minds this week about why the assembly election campaign has been so dull, I started thinking about what might have been.

After all, the St Andrews Agreement specified the need for an electoral endorsement of the deal, but it didn't become clear until some time later that this would be an election, not a referendum.

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern
What would have happened if the PMs had called a referendum

So what might the campaign have been like if the governments had chosen the road less travelled? What follows is an imaginary alternative.

October. St Andrews.

Tony Blair tries hard to pacify Ian Paisley.

He explains that he has already given his word to the Alliance leader David Ford and the SDLP leader Mark Durkan that he will hold a referendum.

The prime minister's word is his bond, and he cannot go back on such a solemn promise.

Not only that, but the Irish attorney general has also strongly advised that a referendum will be necessary south of the border given the fundamental changes the DUP has negotiated in the Good Friday Agreement.

North and south, the governments believe they have no choice.

November. Stormont.

Inside the assembly building, ructions continue in the Programme for Government Committee.

A short distance away at Stormont Castle, the draftsmen are working on the wording of the question to be asked.

The Electoral Commission advise the civil servants that if the Good Friday Agreement referendum was re-run today, they would reject its wording as insufficiently intelligible.

December. Belfast.

The Electoral Commission tries to decide who, if anyone should get matching funding for a Yes and a No campaign.

600,000 is available for a UK-wide referendum, but that's likely to be cut by half for a regional referendum.

Sinn Fein registers itself as a "permitted participant" in favour of the deal, but both unionist parties stand on the sidelines.

The UK Unionists argue that the 10,000 ceiling which parties need to spend to become "permitted participants" should be lowered for a regional referendum.

January. Dublin.

After protracted negotiations, Sinn Fein presses ahead with its extraordinary ard fheis on policing.

Gerry Adams challenges Ian Paisley, claiming the DUP leader had an input into his party's motion. Will Ian Paisley, Mr Adams asks, now officially join the Yes campaign?

Early February. Belfast.

The Electoral Commission decide they cannot appoint an official Yes or No campaign given the internal divisions within both camps.

Republican Sinn Fein say that even if they had been offered the Queen's shilling, they would not have taken it.

Anti-water charges campaigners argue that if 300,000 of public money is going begging, some of it should be used to lower the new bills.

Mid-February. Belfast.

The Electoral Commission publishes literature explaining the arguments for and against.

Politicians at St Andrews talks
The referndum would have been on the St Andrews Agreement

The taxpayer funds leaflets which include an outright denunciation of the PSNI - the commission explains that it must accurately paraphrase the dissident republican case against the agreement.

Mid-February. BBC Broadcasting House, Belfast.

The first in a series of set-piece TV debates pits the UK Unionist leader Bob McCartney against the DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson.

Pressed as to whether his party is in the "Yes" or "No" camp, Mr Robinson says the DUP has decided to tell its supporters to follow their consciences.

The St Andrews Agreement, he argues, is a deal between two governments and a firm endorsement from the DUP might undermine the party's negotiating leverage with the Treasury over a satisfactory financial package.

Early March. BBC Broadcasting House, Belfast.

A live webcast brings Sinn Fein and the SDLP together with a range of dissenting republicans opposed to the PSNI.

Several participants walk out after a heated exchange gets physical. The PSNI is called to restore order, but most of the politicians refuse to cooperate with their inquiries.

6 March. Belfast City Hall.

In an eve of poll rally, the unofficial cross-party "Yes" campaign says the concentration on policing and power-sharing has obscured the "bread and butter" issues which they claim most of the voters are concerned about.

Anti-St Andrews Agreement politicians respond by saying they care about these issues too, but do not believe the deal is the only way forwards.

7 March.

After vetting for intelligibility by the Electoral Commission, the question is posed.

As I say, that's all the product of an over fertile imagination.

But thinking counterfactually may help explain why we have had such a low-key campaign, and why the government opted for an election over a referendum.

mark.devenport@bbc.co.uk


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