Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Stormont becoming the sort of place where accidents could happen: Sour atmosphere on the hill as storm clouds loom

Trouble afoot at Stormont

Stormont is becoming the sort of place where accidents could happen. None of the parties actually wants to push the Assembly into suspension, which would be like turkeys voting for Christmas. Yet trust levels are dropping to such a low point that the next stand-off could prove fatal.

In recent days, two leading Sinn Fein members have warned of the dangers; sending up distress flares to the British and Irish governments – perhaps the Americans, too – to take a hand.

In his blog on the Belfast Telegraph's website, Declan Kearney – the party chair – talks of an impasse and adds: "The potential exists for this impasse to be overtaken by a political vacuum.

"With elections in May, followed quickly by another difficult marching season, a new phase of increased political instability and sectarianism becomes a worrying possibility."

Over on Eamonn Mallie's website, Mitchel McLaughlin calls on the two governments to consider what he calls the "mounting evidence that the reckless behaviour of mainstream unionist parties could precipitate a genuine and full-scale political crisis".

Sinn Fein is clearly feeling under pressure and believes that it is not getting what it signed up to out of coalition with the DUP.

McLaughlin mentions the Haass proposals and the Maze/Long Kesh site, saying that such issues pose "an increasing threat to the sustainability of the Assembly".

Mo Mowlam observed in her autobiography that Sinn Fein often used McLaughlin to float things that they may later pull back on. Is he bluffing this time?

McLaughlin doesn't threaten that Sinn Fein will bring down the institutions and the realpolitik of the situation is that it would be against their interests to do so. Short of a united Ireland, the party's main ambition is to be in government north and south at the same time.

That could happen by April 2016 – the latest date for an Irish general election and the centenary of the Easter Rising. But it won't happen if the party has brought down power-sharing in the north.

Collapsing Stormont would also allow the dissidents and other critics to argue that the strategy of the Sinn Fein leadership had failed. The IRA arsenal was decommissioned to please the DUP and, if the administration becomes "unsustainable", then that would have been for nothing.

The DUP knows that Sinn Fein is wedded to power-sharing and don't have a better option. In Mark Carruthers's book, Alternative Ulsters, Peter Robinson says of Martin McGuinness: "I don't think there is a part of him that would ever want to go back to violence ... he genuinely does want to find a way forward."

The DUP clearly believes it has Sinn Fein in a corner and doesn't feel the need to make concessions on anything very much.

The result is a very sour atmosphere on the hill, in which the DUP largely gets its own way, while Sinn Fein blocks, or delays, issues like welfare reform to show muscle.

This sort of situation can clearly go wrong. It very nearly did over the on-the-runs issue, when Peter Robinson threatened to cause an election unless the UK Government gave him a judge-led inquiry. They just about covered his blushes on that one. What he got seems pretty thin, but if they hadn't, he would have been forced to make good on his threat.

The governments could step in and call the shots, but nobody knows where that would lead.

The grown-up option is for the two big parties to sort this out by compromise, as they pledged to do when they entered government together.

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