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NI Election: Sinn Fein must push for old agreements to be honoured and major Stormont reform

Daithi McKay

Arlene Foster's fall from grace is nearly complete. She has inadvertently created the perfect political storm for Sinn Fein to take advantage of. However, republicans themselves will still be in shock at the extent of their success and the historic end of the unionist majority at Stormont.

Michelle O'Neill and Gerry Adams did not have to break a sweat during the snap election campaign. The voters were intent on punishing Foster for what they saw as her attack on those with an Irish/nationalist identity before republican canvassers unhitched the hinge on their garden gates.

Those with a bee in their bonnet about Brexit and the fact that the DUP boasted about blocking marriage equality until 2021 also took their chance to give unionists a beating in the privacy of the voting booth.

However, for republicans the hard work now begins. The first thing that Sinn Fein needs to do is to recognise, psychologically, that it has a mandate that is absolutely equal to the DUP's. This is the most important set of negotiations since 1998 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

There are high expectations. The Irish language community expects to see their rights upheld and protected. The St Andrews Agreement commitment to the Irish language 11 years ago must be implemented with no fudge and no constructive ambiguity.

The DUP style of government in the past was to agree a deal on a controversial issue, for example the devolution of policing and justice, and then stall it for not just months but years, to the frustration of all parties.

Any agreement now on outstanding issues from past accords needs to be tied down very tightly to ensure implementation within a short timeframe. Why? Because they are already many years overdue.

Marriage equality featured prominently in the Sinn Fein election campaign and that must be up for discussion at this week's talks. However, for the DUP marriage equality is a matter that it is less likely to agree to than an Irish Language Act/strategy. Its members have very rigid views on the matter and would see an agreement to introduce it as a betrayal of the religious right and the core DUP voters.

Therefore it seems likely that this will be a sticking point and the matter may fall to the Assembly's new class of 2017 - should they take their seats.

However, should such a Bill reach the blue floor of the Assembly chamber it will be quickly guillotined by the tabling of a petition of concern. The DUP only needs two other signatures from the TUV's Jim Allister and an Ulster Unionist to veto a change to the law.

Both Allister and Roy Beggs of the UUP have already said that they would block any such reform.

So a regressive veto remains, and this is an area that republicans should focus on in the talks. We now have a legislature where Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance on their own hold the most seats and therefore the north has a clear majority in favour of introducing marriage for gay members of our community. A political discussion must be held about the petition of concern and its abuse over the past decade. The parties should either legislate for it to be used in strictly set areas, increase the number of signatures required to trigger one, or introduce weighted majority voting for particular areas of concern - again defined in legislation.

The mechanism has the potential to be a major stumbling block to progressive change over the next five years. And remember this - people have voted for change. It is clear from the words of Gavin Robinson, Ian Paisley and Edwin Poots that the needs of the DUP must be put before the needs of its party leader.

Foster is damaged beyond repair, though in the tradition of many other leaders, she does not recognise that she should have fallen on her sword immediately after Mike Nesbitt.

Sinn Fein will work with her but not while the RHI inquiry is being undertaken. Foster has secured the worst result for unionism in a century - why would republicans want to get rid of her?

The DUP realises that it needs the Assembly. It needs to steady the ship and make its political product more attractive to the centre ground.

Foster has poked a sleeping nationalist lion that has roared across the Sperrins and through the streets of Derry and Belfast. The DUP's strategy will be to ensure that its never makes that mistake again.

If nationalists are not content and respected as equal within the north then they will rise up at the ballot box. As will the gay community. As will any minority that the DUP wilfully abuses.

For the first time in many years those who collectively oppose the DUP have realised the power that they can exert at their polling stations. Time will tell if this genie can be placed back inside the bottle.

Sinn Fein will be assessing why its vote rocketed last week and will obviously want to see that repeated in future elections.

It has successfully arrested the electoral slide that began between 2011 and 2016. People have voted with hope that politics here will move forward. They have voted for an Assembly that will bring about progressive change.

They have voted out of fear, not of Gerry Adams and crocodiles in red T-shirts, but of Brexit and how that will bring about hard borders and the potential loss of their jobs, which could so easily migrate south.

That is why this negotiation is so important.

We need a change in attitude from unionism, but that is far from guaranteed in the longer term.

Therefore, any mechanisms contained within the institutions that may be used to abuse minorities (even if they are designed to protect them) should be reformed or removed.

Republicans should not only negotiate to secure the outstanding agreements of the past. They should work to secure a progressive Assembly for the future.

Results centre - select a constituency - every result as it happened -

North Antrim - East Antrim - South Antrim - North Belfast - East Belfast - South Belfast - West Belfast - Strangford - South Down - Lagan Valley - Upper Bann - Newry and Armagh - Fermanagh & South Tyrone - West Tyrone - Mid Ulster - East Londonderry - Foyle - North Down

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