Belfast Telegraph

Daithi McKay: Equality and rights hold the key to restoration of power-sharing Assembly

Weighted majority mechanism in new 90-seat legislature could allay republican fears about DUP minority rule

By Daithi McKay

The annual republican address at the Bodenstown commemoration in Co Kildare has traditionally been viewed as a measurement of where republican strategy is at, or what direction it is turning. On Sunday Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney addressed the faithful from the resting place of Theobald Wolfe Tone: "If the DUP imagines it can wind back the clock - with a Tory side-deal or not - and re-establish the institutions without adherence to equality and rights, then the DUP is indeed living in a fool's paradise."

The key to rebuilding the Executive is obvious - equality and rights. It couldn't have been made any clearer during the Assembly and Westminster elections when it was put in block letters and exclamation marks on posters across the north: 'Marriage Equality Now!'; 'Acht na Gaelige Anois!'

Republicans know that the 10 years of devolution between 2007 and 2017 were an important contributor to bedding down the peace process. They also know that, towards the end of this period, there was a growing disengagement among nationalists.

Stormont was no longer viewed as a one-party parliament, but it was seen in a negative light due to the fact that the DUP used equality safeguards, such as the petition of concern, to prevent political progress and to shoot down motions which called into question Members' particular business interests.

The old assumption that, when an issue was agreed in talks, that it would gradually fall into place once a party had prepared its base is now dead.

The Irish Language Act proposal has languished for a decade. It may have remained a no-go area for the DUP for another 10 years had it not been for the RHI debacle and the former First Minister's infamous "crocodile" comment that have placed it at the top of the talks as a pre-condition to re-establishing government.

For Sinn Fein to successfully remain in the north's unique consociational arrangement it required one key thing: the evolution of the DUP.

That included a softening of position towards the Irish language and a relaxation of opposition to marriage equality, in line with changing public opinion.

The leading unionist party chose not to compromise.

In regard to particular social and political issues in the Assembly, unionist majority rule was replaced with DUP minority rule.

Republicans will lose face if they return to an Assembly in which a petition of concern can still be deployed to block marriage equality.

A return to an Assembly of gridlock - the status quo - will kill off the extraordinary political momentum unleashed over the past six months.

On the other hand, Sinn Fein will want a mechanism in place for nationalists to block particular Bills that they do not want to see progressed, either.

With a changing political demographic, the unionist parties falling below 50% for the first time and the growing realisation that you cannot have a progressive Assembly in parallel with an unreformed petition of concern system, a weighted majority mechanism and other options should be considered.

Tinkering around the edges of the petition of concern will not suffice. 'Politics is the art of the possible', but we would do well to be wary of a political system that puts heavy limitations on the possible.

Arlene Foster is clearly enjoying her moment in the Westminster sun. Through Twitter and Google, the majority of the British public are getting an answer to their question: who are the DUP? They are realising that they don't want to touch them with a 40-foot barge pole.

With many in Labour, as well as the Conservatives, now in favour of an exit from both the single market and the customs union, the arithmetic is turning against those who wish to see special status introduced for the north. A soft Taoiseach in Dublin is the last thing that nationalists needed at this crucial period.

Leo Varadkar's peculiar quip in Downing Street about a scene from the film Love Actually on the day that David Davis confirmed that EU customs union exit will go ahead does not give the impression that this is a chief who'll play hardball with Prime Minister Theresa May, but rather conservative footsie.

At this moment in time, the DUP needs the Assembly more than Sinn Fein does. There is no great panic among republicans to rush back into a Stormont administration of frustration.

The political landscape ahead is frightening; a new customs border and the economic hardship that comes with Brexit.

The prospect of having no power in the Assembly locally and DUP-influenced direct rule policy imposed from London will leave nationalists feeling more unsettled and restless than they have been since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Brexit referendum result reawakened northern nationalism. What impact will a hard border and economic hardship have on those who are now becoming re-engaged in the argument for Irish unity?

Many Gaels under 30 will have no memory of there ever being anything other than a seamlessness between north and south.

At this juncture, a move from the DUP to shift issues from the Assembly negotiating table to behind closed doors of 10 Downing Street would be a huge gamble.

Redefining a victim, dealing with the past, introducing a statute of limitations - agreeing to any of these under or over the table with Theresa May will risk collapsing the institutions should they be restored.

While the mood at Stormont Castle has certainly improved, it would be foolish to assume that a meeting of minds is inevitable.

The DUP has been re-energised after a long and battering six months.

The smell of UUP electoral blood and the potential to secure enough seats for a one-party petition of concern may prove too hard to resist.

The number-crunchers will have already identified potential gains in constituencies such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone, East Antrim and South Belfast on the back of Westminster tally reports.

A larger gap between the DUP and Sinn Fein may make sitting in an Assembly where unionism is now in a minority a little bit more comfortable.

There is every possibility that we still need to have one more poll in the autumn before the parties are all in a position to make a deal.

The DUP will not meet the Sinn Fein demands that it be respectful overnight. That being the case, it ultimately has to be the mechanisms of government here that need to change to ensure that respect and equality are delivered.

The tectonic plates of our future place in the world are moving in Brussels, London, Dublin and Belfast.

Leaving the EU has brought republicans and nationalists back to the ballot box.

Our local Brexiteers should have been careful of what they wished for; they just might get it.

Daithi McKay was Sinn Fein MLA for North Antrim from 2007 until August 2016

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