Time Sinn Fein put up or shut up
It took republicans just 76 days to turn turtle on the Stormont House Agreement. The choice they must make now is whether to continue in Government here - they can't continue to have it both ways, says Alex Kane.
December 23, 2014 seems like a very, very long way away now. That was the last day when Sinn Fein was happy. Indeed, it was practically ecstatic.
The Stormont House Agreement had been signed and it was briefing anyone who hadn't gone Christmas shopping that it had faced down David Cameron and Enda Kenny and delivered an agreement "that ensured progress and fairness and an opportunity to move forward".
It was still in a good mood on January 6 when a Belfast Telegraph story confirmed that it was "the only party to ratify the December deal". The rest of the parties had been fairly nuanced in their stance: the UUP's executive had merely "taken note" of the agreement, the SDLP and Alliance bubble-wrapped their position, and the DUP took the Oscar Wilde approach and allowed it to become the "policy that dare not speak its name".
In early February the Welfare Bill (a key element of the agreement) was voted through to its next legislative stage, with the DUP and Sinn Fein seeing off more than 50 amendment challenges from their three Executive partners.
At that point Sinn Fein was still very upbeat. Martin McGuinness went so far as to suggest that Alasdair McDonnell was losing control of the SDLP to a "dissident element" who would allow their objections to the Welfare Bill to risk the collapse of Stormont. And, on March 4, a few days before its ard fheis, McGuinness insisted that there is "a much improved mood in Stormont since December last year".
Then wow! On Monday, March 9, fresh from the ard fheis and the day before the Welfare Bill was due to be debated again, McGuinness announced that Sinn Fein would deploy a petition of concern to stop it in its tracks.
And, in stopping the Bill, he knew that he was also stopping the implementation of every other aspect of the Stormont House Agreement.
He knew the reaction from the DUP would be one of outrage. He knew that he was provoking a new crisis.
He knew that he was doing the very thing he had accused the SDLP of doing - risking the collapse of the institutions. In just 76 days, Sinn Fein had gone from ecstatic to meltdown.
All sorts of reasons have been suggested for the turnaround. Mike Nesbitt claimed that the northern tail was being tugged by the "southern command".
There were claims that polling at the ard fheis had indicated grassroots discontent with the agreement, particularly the financial parts.
Some thought that it was an election ploy: the argument being that the leadership was convinced a Labour/SNP coalition would win and that Sinn Fein would be able to squeeze a better deal a few months down the line.
A few argued that it was just Sinn Fein's response to the DUP line that it was going to be kingmakers in the next parliament.
McGuinness said that the petition of concern was, in fact, a response to the DUP's "bad faith" and accused it of reneging on a pledge that "nobody would be worse off after benefit cuts."
Yet that argument doesn't really stack up, because up until that point - and during a series of leadership speeches at the ard fheis - no one in Sinn Fein was signalling concerns about the issue.
We'll probably never know the real reason behind the change of policy - the Sinn Fein leadership is very good at keeping secrets while executing extraordinary U-turns - but we can be certain that it is well aware of the consequences of what it is doing.
So, here's the crucial question: is Sinn Fein prepared to collapse the institutions? The answer is yes.
Sinn Fein will collapse anything or overturn any policy if it believes it no longer suits its long-term electoral or agenda purposes.
Look how easily it abandoned its opposition to a "partitionist, internal settlement" when it concluded that it might help the party's all-Ireland agenda.
And even if the Assembly were to fall tomorrow, Sinn Fein reckons it can still do much of what it needs to do through the new super councils here and its growing representative presence in the Republic.
That doesn't mean that Sinn Fein will pull the plug itself. It may reckon it doesn't need to. Its calculation is that the DUP and UUP dread the return of direct rule and will, when push comes to shove, do what is required to save Stormont.
It has a point. While Sinn Fein may have a fall-back position in the absence of an Assembly, the DUP and UUP don't.
Even if they're not actually doing very much, they like the propaganda and psychological advantages that accrue from being in "the Government of Northern Ireland".
They will be reluctant to give that up.
Similarly, Sinn Fein has also calculated that neither Westminster nor the Dail wants to be lumbered with any further responsibility for governing this place.
We've already heard the lines about a return to the dark days and vacuums being created. Last week McGuinness said: "Those institutions, which have underpinned the peace process for almost two decades, are now endangered because of Tory recklessness."
That's so typical of Sinn Fein. Link austerity to the local institutions then hint that the "peace process" itself is now in jeopardy.
What it is really saying is this: "Mr Cameron, are you prepared to endanger peace and open the door to more violence for the sake of a few billion of unfair, unjustified cuts?"
Sinn Fein is trapped in a position in which it never expected to find itself: governing a Northern Ireland that remains in the United Kingdom and is likely to remain so long after McGuinness, Adams and the rest of us have popped our clogs.
It doesn't want to be in Stormont, let alone joined at the hip to people like Gregory Campbell and Sammy Wilson. It certainly doesn't want to be trapped in a Government in which its expected to administer "Tory cuts". It doesn't want to keep on explaining to its core vote why Irish unity remains so far away.
Yet these are the sorts of consequences that flow from its decision to take seats in the Government of Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein made that choice in 1998 and again in 2007.
The choice it must make now is about its continuing participation in that administration. It can't continue to have it both ways.
And it can't continue to blame others for its own miscalculations, misunderstandings, failings and ongoing inability to eradicate the "British presence" on the island and create a united Ireland.
- Liam Clarke returns next week