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A republican signal election is on cards

By Malachi O'Doherty

There seems to be only one way to avoid a crisis at Stormont. There has been much parsing of Sinn Fein intentions, how it has rephrased its demand for an inquiry, but that is not the actual sticking point.

Its faffing around about whether it wants a full public inquiry, or something less than that, overseen by a judicial figure, has prompted commentators to assume that it wants a way out of this deadlock, and that it is trying to find a way to save Arlene Foster and avert an election.

It could find itself without options after an election, with Foster still in place. Before Christmas, what seemed like a full-on confrontation that could only be resolved by her political annihilation, now seems more nuanced. And past experience of such deadlocks has taught us to look for clues to how parties are finding wriggle room.

But the clues to Sinn Fein intentions are surely not to be found in the definition of the inquiry it wants or whether its demand is for a resignation or a 'standing aside'.

The most modest reading of the Sinn Fein position is, for now, unattainable.

Even if it was only asking for Foster to wave a white hankie over her head and sit down again, if she refuses to oblige, then we have a crisis that it can't back away from.

At the beginning of this crisis Sinn Fein seemed anxious to avoid a crashing of the institutions, such as would be triggered by a refusal to work with a First Minister in whom the Assembly had lost faith.

Now it clearly sees it as unavoidable. It has a base that feels the party has already conceded too much and gained little in return.

It can't risk humiliation. But perhaps it has begun to see benefits from an early election, including potential damage to the SDLP.

And it suits it very well to be stamping its feet and demanding probity and standards when the thing it is most often accused of in the South is having little respect for law and the constitution.

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