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DUP backs Brexit but deliberations on the future of Irish border could end up aiding Sinn Fein ambitions

By Malachi O'Doherty

Sinn Fein acts and sounds now like a party that can contentedly lose Stormont. Clearly there will be some cost to the party in lost jobs and funding, but it is facing into the current crisis with the air of not really caring very much whether the Executive is restored or not. This may be tactical, an effort to freak out the DUP.

For Arlene Foster's party does want devolution to work, for the simple reason that it has so little else to engage it.

In Stormont, Sinn Fein has been the junior partner to a party with more MLAs and more departments to run. And the DUP may have relaxed into a sense that it was bigger than Sinn Fein, had more clout.

But it doesn't. It is actually the smaller of the two parties when you consider the broad range of platforms both participate in.

Aside from the Assembly, unionists have six councils in which they have a majority. The DUP also has 8 MPs at Westminister and it may become very important there when Theresa May needs a few extra votes to shore up a slim Tory majority.

There are four councils with clear nationalist majorities. Sinn Fein has four Westminster seats and doesn't bother to take them, though it has offices, salaries and expenses from there.

It also has a party structure in the Republic and 23 seats in the Dail and seven in the Senate. Unlike the DUP in Westminster, which will never actually have a Cabinet post, Sinn Fein has a realistic prospect of governing.

So, a few years after the collapse of the Executive, it is the DUP which is more likely to be feeling eclipsed.

And there is more to a party's prospects than the number of jobs it can offer to its members. More important still is the project in hand.

The DUP is in danger of being a party that has little to play for.

It has pegged its name to the Brexit Project. It will probably indeed see Britain come out of the European Union and then it may have to fight to help retain the integrity of the smaller Union it reveres so much. That will be its job for the next two years.

But how is it going to manage?

Without an Executive, Northern Ireland will have no Brexiteer in the coming negotiations.

Already the Scottish National Party has recognised this as a problem.

Theresa May has committed herself to allowing the devolved regions of the UK to be part of the negotiations. The SNP is arguing that she can not reasonably trigger Article 50 and start the negotiations until there is a Northern Ireland executive that can take its place.

Northern Ireland's position was already complicated, for our First Minister urged people to vote to leave the EU and revelled in the prospects of Brexit, while our deputy First Minister wanted to Remain.

How were they going to sort that out? There was no prospect of them having an agreed position when the talks got down to the essentials of how Britain's border with the EU, running from Derry to Newry, was to be managed.

But look at it from a Sinn Fein perspective now.

Sinn Fein wants a united Ireland. Its leader, Gerry Adams, certainly cares more about being on track towards that goal than he does about the efficient administration of Northern Ireland or the amicability of relations with the Unionists.

And he now has a hand to play.

The absorbing question, which he has worried over since he was a teenager, is now to come before a meeting of 28 European countries, 29 if you count Scotland.

People have argued in recent days that it makes little sense for Adams to get back into peace processing when the global political scene has changed. May is not Blair; she will not rush into high summitry to save the Executive. Trump is not Clinton; we don't even know if he knows where Ireland is.

This misses the point that Germany and France, Italy and Spain and all those other countries will, within months, be trying to work out a system by which the creation of a hard border in Ireland can be avoided.

Vince Cable says it can only be done through closer political union between the two parts of Ireland.

Some voices in the Republic argue that the answer is for Ireland to come out of the EU, others more emphatically that Ireland must stay in and find another way.

One answer is a hard border, in which trade is held up and tariffs are imposed.

Among those goods in the near future will be our electricity, through an interconnector. We may be paying a tariff on that.

Another idea, seriously discussed by academics at a recent conference in Stormont, is that the border be drawn down the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland would be free of tariffs and these would apply only when goods and people arrived in Great Britain, the so called mainland. This idea appals Unionists, but they have a problem. Without an Executive their case will be made by the Secretary of State, James Brokenshire.

He may indeed be ardent in the presentation of that case, look ahead to the need for DUP votes in Westminster.

Or he may find, at a crucial moment, that he just doesn't have that commitment to the Union that Arlene Foster has.

From the republican perspective, things are a little more clear. Ireland is a member of the EU. Irish ministers will be at that table and they will be arguing that a way must be found not to restore the border.

Yes, they will be anxious not to rile the Unionists in the North, but that concern might not be any more decisive for them at the end than the DUP votes will be for Brokenshire.

So, both the DUP and Sinn Fein are faced with the possible imminent refutation of their deepest convictions and it is Sinn Fein's argument which is now better placed to be heard.

Of course, those will not be Sinn Fein ministers at the European talks table, but Sinn Fein will be campaigning ardently to focus minds on the need to avoid the creation of a border.

It will be aided by the SDLP arguing for joint authority, for something similar to what Vince Cable appears to have in mind, closer political union between North and South.

The DUP has argued that the fuss over the mismanagement of the RHI scheme is a smokescreen for a political agenda.

It appears to assume that that agenda is the creation of an Irish Language Act and the legacy issues.

But there is a much bigger game on now.

And history may record that Arlene Foster's biggest mistake was not throwing cash after ash, but her support for the Brexit cause which has made it necessary for Sinn Fein to nudge her out of the coming negotiations.

For that is what it has done.

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