Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: So, will 2020 finally be the year when DUP and Sinn Fein kiss and make up?

Will the gates of Stormont be open again in 2020?
Will the gates of Stormont be open again in 2020?
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The Christmas ceasefire between our big two parties ended yesterday as the Secretary of State announced that talks to restore devolution will resume on Thursday.

In a New Year message, which didn't seem brimming with the spirit of the season, DUP MP Gregory Campbell hit out at Sinn Fein's "politics of boycott and blockade" for having a "crippling effect" on public services.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald was re-engaging in old battles when she turned back the clock and chided the DUP for walking away from a deal with her party two years ago.

But this was small-fry squabbling compared to what we have previously seen - 2020 looks set to be the year when Sinn Fein and the DUP kiss and make up.

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster

For better or for worse, they appear on course to return to power at Stormont imminently.

"The outstanding issues can be resolved. The time for acrimony and division is over," said an upbeat Mary Lou.

Gregory was a tad more grudging but it wasn't hard to read between the lines.

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"The recent Westminster election results can be interpreted as giving voice to the exasperated desire of many people to see a Stormont government up and running to try and deal with the extreme circumstances that abound in health, education and other sectors," he said.

Let's cut to the chase. Our two main parties lost tens of thousands of votes three weeks ago.

DUP Westminster kingmakers are now just common folk. Sinn Fein had two poor Southern elections this year, and a return to government on this side of the border could enhance its chances in the coming Dail poll.

Both parties have very real reasons for wanting to get their hands on the levers of power again at Stormont. Pragmatism ultimately always triumphs over principle for these two, and our NHS crisis provides them with perfect cover to make whatever compromise that a deal involves.

Previous polling has shown 90% of DUP and UUP voters are against an Irish Language Act. Whatever legislative provision is made for the language, the DUP will insist it does not amount to a standalone act. Although grassroots unionist opposition to Irish language legislation remains, it will likely be dulled for many by the desire to see an Executive up and running to tackle life-and-death issues like cancer waiting times.

While the motivation for the DUP and Sinn Fein to go back into government is evident, what of the UUP, SDLP and Alliance?

Mary Lou McDonald
Mary Lou McDonald

Unless there is significant reform at Stormont which guarantees a truly collegiate approach, there are strong reasons for the smaller parties not to join a new Executive.

They have all spoken about how they were sidelined and snubbed there in the past. Yet they know that while the public may understand any party leaving a government in certain circumstances, to refuse to join one after three years of political paralysis looks petty and churlish.

The DUP and Sinn Fein would be seriously spooked if their main rivals did opt out. But the SDLP in particular would pay a heavy political price for doing so given the importance it placed on Sinn Fein's Westminster no show.

Under the d'Hondt system, Alliance isn't automatically entitled to a ministry. The DUP and Sinn Fein could offer the justice portfolio to independent unionist Claire Sugden again. Yet bypassing Alliance could look shabby given its stunning 2019 election performances which left it representing nearly a fifth of the electorate.

The DUP and Sinn Fein both lost votes to Naomi Long's party.

While instinctively neither may want to gift it a ministry, both will be aware that not doing so could further alienate those voters, and Alliance may be more dangerous outside an Executive anyway.

Mary Lou McDonald and Arlene Foster will hope to avoid more strikes by Northern Ireland nurses
Mary Lou McDonald and Arlene Foster will hope to avoid more strikes by Northern Ireland nurses

Expect Maire Hendron to resign her East Belfast seat to make way for Long post-Brexit.

The Alliance leader would most likely be her party's choice for the justice portfolio. But Strangford MLA Kellie Armstrong, whom the party has been promoting heavily, can't be ruled out.

Reports that former DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly would be co-opted into Carla Lockhart's Upper Bann seat were erroneous. Diane Dodds was always going to be first choice.

Little-Pengelly's talents are valued by her party and had a vacancy arisen in North Down, she would have been parachuted in there. Her most likely route back to Stormont in the short-term would appear to be as a special adviser.

Nigel Dodds currently seems destined for the House of Lords.

He genuinely loves Westminster and perhaps a return to Stormont would publicly appear too much like a threat to Arlene Foster's leadership even though it wouldn't be intended as one.

With the RHI report expected in February, Foster will be much happier if power-sharing is restored by then as that would take the sting out of the other parties criticisms.

Sinn Fein may well share that sentiment from a different viewpoint. Cash-for-ash is a DUP scandal and Mary Lou McDonald's party isn't directly in the line of fire.

But very damning findings by Sir Patrick Coghlin and his team would strengthen feeling in that section of Sinn Fein's grassroots already ultra-hostile to returning to government with the DUP.

So both parties may have very real reason to broker a deal next month before we read that red hot RHI report.

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