Belfast Telegraph

If Brokenshire gets it wrong, he could leave Northern Ireland even more divided

By Malachi O'Doherty

The Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, has a decision to make. The current legal position requires him to call an election to the Assembly within a reasonable time, but there are strong reasons why he might not want to do that.

It would be a message to the electorate that their last election result wasn't good enough, a way of telling them to go back and think again.

That would make a certain amount of sense if the electorate was in a mood to agree that they should vote differently this time. Maybe he thinks they would shift to the middle ground parties in the hope that they would be more likely to agree with each other and run this place more efficiently.

But Brokenshire, if he knows anything bout Northern Ireland, knows that that is not going to happen.

Instead, the big parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, will rally their forces for a race to the lead position over the other.

At present unionism and nationalism are level-pegging, but for one unionist seat. And since one of those seats is actually opposed to the whole power-sharing project, there are grounds for saying it does not really count in the balance between the two major communal blocks,

Sinn Fein would, I suspect, gleefully fight another election in the hope of overtaking the DUP and taking the First Minister's position.

Already, the logic of their being in a secondary position as deputy is stretched beyond tenability.

And the DUP would see an election as a prospect of recovering ground and firmly eclipsing the major advance that Sinn Fein made three weeks ago.

About 40% of the electorate does not vote, but some might be rallied in a spirit of urgency, responding to a call to secure the pre-eminence of unionism or to firmly slap it back and establish a nationalist lead for the first time in Northern Ireland's history.

That tells you that another election now would be an intercommunal contest like none we have had before.

Brokenshire's legacy then would be that he had left Northern Ireland even more deeply divided than he found it.

Without an election, the parties themselves have varied prospects.

Alliance and the other 'middle ground' forces would be able to argue that they are not the problem and that increased support for them would make this place more viable.

They would point to the economic erosion and the depletion of pubic services at a time when the budget would be managed by the civil service or even direct rule ministers.

The unionists would blame Sinn Fein for the practical problems that would arise and for the denial of full democracy here, but they would be strapped for any clear project to get themselves back into power if they could not persuade republicans to make a deal for them.

And Sinn Fein may like a long stand off.

Their vote tends to increase through periods of deadlock, like the long stalemate over decommissioning and the recognition of policing, which ended in 2007 with the St Andrews Agreement.

So long as they can persuade their followers that the real problem is British power and unionist intransigence, they might carry this off.

The prize would be the eradication of the SDLP, if not the prospect of actually overtaking the DUP.

The DUP, in the same deadlock, as before, might swallow up the frail and failing Ulster Unionist Party.

Sinn Fein have a constellation of issues to campaign and protest over, but the chief of these will be Brexit. They argue that Northern Ireland - 'the North' - is being taken out of the EU against its will. They have a credible case to make there and will hope that their umbrage will reach the ears of the 27 European countries which will be negotiating Brexit with Britain. When those countries get round the table, the status of the Irish border will be high on their agenda.

And Sinn Fein will have the ear of the Irish government, one of the parties to those negotiations.

The DUP will similarly have the ear of the British government, but Britain will be one against 27.

Who knows what effect instability here might have on those discussions; it might be enough to tilt several countries away from considering moves that they think would disgruntle the locals. And much will depend on how they read those prospects.

This crisis started over a badly managed heating scheme. It is now about the central issue of concern to republicans, the border and the chances of a further inching towards a united Ireland.

Their history is one of grasping opportunities when Britain was disadvantaged and they are doing it again.

Or it may be that someone will whisper in the ear of Gerry Adams that the elected MLAs aren't really up for sacrificing their jobs and their salaries for the big project, that they risk a pasting from the electorate if voters begin to doubt that Sinn Fein can govern and protect services.

Maybe James Brokenshire will think that if the parties are left to think through all the implications of their deadlock they will find a way out of it.

Maybe they will.

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