Belfast Telegraph

Martin McGuinness was right: there can be no return to the status quo - but what do we put in its place?

By Alex Kane

On November 21, 2016, Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster agreed a joint statement. Here is the opening paragraph: "Day by day, slowly but surely, politics here is changing. And it's for the better. The focus is increasingly now on policies and delivery - on finding the best ways to make people's lives better.

 The seeds of this change can be found in the Fresh Start Agreement a year ago and the Assembly election some six months later. Our two parties - along with Claire Sugden as Justice Minister - are now in an Executive facing in the same direction. We made promises to voters that we will keep - taking on the heavy responsibilities that come with elected office, governing in their best interests, tackling head-on the tough decisions. Others decided to duck the challenges and retreat to the Opposition benches. That is a matter for them. We are getting on with the work."

Even old cynics like me thought that maybe, just maybe, a corner had been turned. Here were the leaders of unionism and republicanism signing up to joint responsibility and joint delivery. Or, as one DUP MLA told me: "There you go, Alex; you keep saying we can't work together and we've just proved we can. So how about some positivity from you?"

Yet, just 49 days later, on January 9, 2017, Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister; crashing the institutions and forcing an election. The language he used was astonishing: "At times, I have stretched and challenged republicans and nationalists in my determination to reach out to our unionist neighbours. It is a source of deep personal frustration that those efforts have not always been reciprocated by unionist leaders. At times they have been met with outright rejection. The equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the GFA have never been fully embraced by the DUP. Apart from the negative attitude to nationalism and the Irish identity and culture, there has been a shameful disrespect towards many other sections of our community... and for those who wish to live their lives through the medium of Irish, elements of the DUP have exhibited the most crude and crass bigotry. Against this backdrop the current scandal over RHI has emerged."

When McGuinness later said that there would be "no return to the status quo," he was making it blindingly clear that power-sharing - in the sense we have known it since May 2007 - was unacceptable. He also knew that he was passing on the leadership of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland and the Assembly to other hands; to people who might not have the same commitment to the Executive, nor to working with the DUP. In other words, his last political act was to say to Arlene Foster, after 10 years of serving in the Executive with her, that he had had enough of the status quo.

Given their very upbeat joint statement in November - when not one word of his "resignation" concerns was mentioned - it was a devastating act. The man who had done so much to put Sinn Fein, the IRA and the DUP in the same place at the same time, was practically admitting that he had failed to deliver.

He was admitting that the relationship was fatally flawed (even if he did have some good personal relationships with Ian Paisley, who was toppled because of it, and Robinson).

He was admitting that many in the DUP didn't even talk to him. He was admitting that devolution wasn't doing much for the Sinn Fein agenda. And, as I wrote at the time, perhaps it was the first signal that Sinn Fein was thinking beyond an Assembly; considering the possibility that something closer to joint authority would be more useful. Whatever the reasons behind the tone and language of his resignation statement (and, as he made clear, RHI was not the key issue in and of itself), it was evident that Sinn Fein was reassessing the purpose and effectiveness of power-sharing. It was known that elements within their grassroots were not happy with Arlene Foster; and it was also an open secret that she and McGuinness didn't have a particularly good relationship.

A few days away from the latest deadline and it doesn't look as though we're any closer to a deal that could be described as genuine, consensual, power-sharing. Indeed, we may, finally, have to admit that power-sharing in that sense is never happening. The election has ensured that "unambiguous" unionists (now thoroughly spooked by not having an Assembly majority and focused on broad-based unity pacts) and "unambiguous" republicans (sniffing Irish unity on the back of the Brexit and Assembly results) are more polarised than ever. It is not in their interests to help each other, so they won't.

Similarly, they can hardly hope to get away with a fresher than-Fresh Start Agreement: because nobody will believe them. They might as well give a Scrabble board to a group of blind monkeys. Even the people who voted for the DUP and Sinn Fein on March 2 didn't do so on the basis that they hoped for, let alone expected, a new beginning for government and for Northern Ireland. Neither of them wants power-sharing, as such; instead, they just seem to want a guarantee that they can pursue their own agenda. I have argued on many occasions - although always happy to be proved wrong - that power-sharing could only work if it was built around conflict resolution, rather than cementing conflict stalemate. Yet, there has been no real evidence of a willingness to do so.

That said, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill have to rise to the challenge. It can't be taken for granted that the institutions can survive. And they certainly won't survive if the big two parties don't jointly own them and jointly deliver a Programme for Government; along with an overarching, costed and clearly directed strategy for dealing with the "big ticket" problems of legacy, paramilitarism, narrative et al. More importantly - they need to jointly implement any new agreement.

I don't know if it was RHI, his relationship with Foster, or the brutal realities of his illness that proved the straw that broke McGuinness's back about the ongoing problems with power-sharing. But something did. And that something has left us with one unavoidable question: can power-sharing ever work here?

Northern Ireland is better than it used to be. The Assembly probably owes its existence to McGuinness. That's why the anger and frustration in his resignation letter matter so much. And he was right: there can be no return to the former status quo.

So, here's the other key question: what do Arlene and Michelle want the new status quo to be?

Fionola Meredith returns next week

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