NI Assembly election campaigning - state of play so far

Less than a fortnight to go and I had an early start on Monday morning on Radio 4's "Today" programme summarising the state of play.

So far it's been a mixed bag, with the mainstream parties concentrating on the "bread and butter" issues, whilst republican dissidents have tried to force security on the agenda, through the murder of Ronan Kerr and a series of continuing alerts.

The dissident campaign has opened up some division over whether Sinn Fein is providing enough information to the authorities about their erstwhile comrades and whether IRA decommissioning was as significant as previously portrayed.

However the main response has been to unite the parties in determination to press ahead with the process.

General approval for the response of the First and Deputy First Ministers to the murder of Constable Kerr may play to the advantage of the two biggest parties - when republicans talk about people voting to support the peace process, it's thinly veiled code for backing Sinn Fein.

It will be ironic if the dissidents, in trying to weaken the Stormont experiment, end up boosting turnout. However that's not certain at this stage.

The nature of Stormont elections, in which voters can't throw a government out and install an opposition, isn't a great incentive for participation.

If turnout does slip, though, it's not necessarily all bad news - if society is moving away from the era in which voters were determined, above all, to ensure the "other side" didn't get in, should we be worried?

Last week's UTV debate played, predictably, into the hands of Messrs Robinson and McGuinness who came across as the more substantial figures.

That said, I didn't think the UUP leader Tom Elliott did as badly as some spin doctors have claimed (his claim that Mr Robinson thought Caitriona Ruane was "great", which led to a heated row with the DUP leader, might not be literally true, but the First Minister did praise the "budgetary discipline" shown by the Education Minister, along with her counterparts in DRD, DETI and the Environment department).

The contest for top spot seems to be a done deal so far as the bookmakers are concerned, with Peter Robinson the clear favourite to retain the First Minister's job.

That won't stop the DUP playing that card closer between now and polling day, but it sits uncomfortably alongside the clear image of them, Sinn Fein and Alliance as the "team players" (to borrow Martin McGuinness's phrase) ranged against the UUP and SDLP "internal opposition".

It's been a good election for Peter Robinson on a personal level. I think there was some nervousness within DUP circles at the start of the campaign about whether there would be a repeat of the anti-Robinson sentiment so evident in East Belfast last year.

That may have contributed to the lack of posters showing his image and the first "Changing Rooms" party election broadcast which didn't feature the leader in vision.

But neither the media nor the DUP's oppoents have raked up what's increasingly viewed as "old coals", and Mr Robinson has obviously thrived during various hustings events, and featured prominently during the DUP's later broadcasts.

So it looks like this could well be the "bounce back" election for the DUP leader.

Although there's no sign of a major tide in favour of the TUV, I'd be surprised if Mr Robinson's "bette noire" Jim Allister doesn't secure a quota in North Antrim (last year's Westminster election suggests he has the votes).

If he does, and if People Before Profit's Eamonn McCann builds on past results in Foyle it could have an impact on the level of rhetoric in the hitherto rather uninspiring Stormont chamber.

Returning to last week's election debate, the obvious difference with last year's campaign was the presence of the Alliance leader David Ford.

Alliance politicians say UTV initially told them they wouldn't be included but changed their minds after hearing the BBC would have Mr Ford in their line up on Tuesday May 3rd, two days before polling day.

For Alliance, this represents a major opportunity to build on last year's East Belfast success as they try to secure enough MLAs to get a ministerial seat on the basis of their party strength, not just the cross community votes of others.

In terms of performance, David Ford rose to the challenge appearing confident and articulate. But if honesty was always the best policy for George Washington, who could not tell a lie, can the same be said for Alliance in their open support for water charges?

It might make financial sense, but I've already heard one acquaintance say "well I won't be voting for them" when hearing the Alliance line. Alliance is requiring potential supporters to adopt one of two fairly sophisticated responses.

First, that the state of the public finances demands voters pay more to maintain quality services.

Second, that even if Alliance does make progress it will require the bigger parties to break their anti-water charges pledges before the policy can become reality.

Voters may factor this in, but they may be more likely to go with the Peter Robinson "times are hard enough as they are" line.

In seeking to make a breakthrough, the Alliance is helped by the UUP's continuing unfinished quest for an identity, and hindered (especially in East Belfast) by any Robinson bounce back.

So given that these things aren't entirely scientific, if they don't make progress we won't be sure how much David Ford's honesty will be to blame.