Northern Ireland

Vote NI 2011: Parties fighting to be top dog

Image caption The Assembly poll will identify the top dogs at Stormont

The general adage about any Northern Ireland election is that it is really two polls - one orange, one green - disguised as one.

Alliance would challenge this view - though to some extent they're the exception that proves the rule.

And the smaller parties on the left and right don't register big enough to alter the fundamentals.

What's different about this election campaign is not that the two polls structure has broken down, but that the dynamic within each poll - and between them - has altered.

As the lead parties of government, the DUP and Sinn Fein are presenting themselves as the responsible choices within each camp.

Role-reversal

Their respective competition - the Ulster Unionists and SDLP - are being painted by the dominant two as troublemakers intent on damaging the status quo.

This is quite a role-reversal and is a difficult scenario for the two smaller parties to deal with.

At times the SDLP and Ulster Unionists have appeared to toy with the idea of joint opposition to the apparent joint phallanx of DUP-Sinn Fein power.

But, ultimately, the requirement to speak solely to their own - rather than collectively across the divide - has killed any co-operative approach.

Despite much talk about opposition, the Ulster Unionists have failed to promise a decisive break with current structures.

This leaves questions over their pledge that they want reform within the lifetime of this assembly.

Under a previous leader the SDLP talked briefly about dismantling the "ugly architecture" of the Good Friday Agreement, but fears of a nationalist backlash has seen them tighten the nuts and bolts on that scaffolding more securely than ever.

Inter-communal rivalry

"No change to the current structures", "reinstate 50-50 recruitment to the PSNI", "a United Ireland the number one priority", the current battle cries. This leaves little room between them and Sinn Fein.

There is a hint of the old inter-communal rivalry with the fight between the DUP and Sinn Fein over which party will be top dog in the assembly and claim the first minister title - but it's being played out with little real enthusiasm because unleashing too much of the bitterness that would stir passions would prove counterproductive to the overall message.

And essentially that overall message boils down to one of management.

Unionist and nationalist voters are being offered a chance to vote for parties based on how well they believe they've managed their government roles.

Watch Sunday's hour-long Politics Show (available on iPlayer until 24 April 2011).