Stagnation once again.
The word in Belfast is Sinn Féin have to bring up Mary Lou McDonald to do the really hard work in the Northern Ireland Assembly election campaign. The appearance of the leader from down south on the BBC flagship election coverage echoes Gerry Adams’s role in leadership debates in Dublin before he was a TD.
The difference is Mary Lou McDonald actually understands politics on the other side of the border. Sinn Féin rightly says it is an all-island party but the talent pendulum in the republican movement seems to have swung south over the past decade.
Just over two years after the Northern Ireland Executive was put back together – yet again – Stormont is heading for another lengthy lay-off. Only a few days before a general election was called south of the border, the last ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal was hailed as a moment of hope. New decade, same old approach.
Aside from a commitment on funding, the deal was supposed to address contentious areas like the Irish language, vetoes and ensuring the executive would remain in place. So much for that. The sight of the Sinn Féin leadership, such as Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, trooping the corridors of power with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar might even have aided the party in the election south of the border by portraying an ability to make progress.
The purported stability at the time was followed by the Brexit fallout, forcing the departure of Arlene Foster as Northern Ireland First Minister and leader of the DUP. The Northern Ireland Protocol brought about an early end to the Executive but the Assembly elections were coming anyway.
Voters in Northern Ireland go to the polls on Thursday with the opinion polls consistently showing Sinn Féin set to become the largest party. The suggested outcome has more to do with the crisis in unionism than any great Sinn Féin burst akin to the ‘Shinner surge’ of 2020. Sinn Féin’s support is up on the last Assembly elections, but is still in a battle to defend some of its seats. The DUP is trying to unify unionist voters, but will need a dramatic shift in the closing days. Sinn Féin coming out as the largest party for the first time wouldn’t just mark the democratic shift of the first time a nationalist party came out on top. Being the largest party means Sinn Féin nominating a First Minister – and that will be a huge issue for unionism.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson is refusing to say if his party will take up the deputy first minister role under a Sinn Féin first minister. Besides, the wider blockage to the Executive resuming is unionist demands around the protocol and an end to the checks on the Irish Sea.
Given the choice between having the best of both worlds in both the UK and EU, and clinging on to the flawed ideals of Brexit, the unionists would rather go for the worst option.
It’s all adding up to Northern Ireland Executive not returning any time soon and the power-sharing foundations of the Good Friday Agreement being shaken – possibly beyond repair.
Meanwhile, the Government is trying to stay out of party politics in the North, while still retaining its position as a guardian of the Good Friday Agreement. For the umpteenth occasion, it is difficult to see a resolution to the impasse in Northern Ireland.
The prospect of Sinn Féin becoming the best supported party north and south of the border is very real, even if an unexpected late turn of fortune for the DUP and the vagaries of transfers denied the party the First Minister’s role. Technically, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are both joint and equal losses. But even Sinn Féin election leaflets say a vote for the party would mean “a progressive First Minister”.
Aside from the historic symbolism of a first Catholic leader of Northern Ireland, the DUP say Sinn Féin will use the office to demand a border poll on a united Ireland. Sinn Féin has made this election about the cost of living and health services, but the party is hardly going to suddenly drop its entire raison d’être.
The forced marriage of power-sharing has stuttered along for the past generation, with parties south of the border pointing to the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland and the Belfast Agreement, forged to end the mixing of violence with politics.
Initially, it was easy to bat off the idea of the southern establishment parties wanting the unionists to do what they would not contemplate and share power with Sinn Féin.
The situation changed though with the 2020 general election, where Sinn Féin got the largest proportion of the votes and the nomination of a Sinn Féin Taoiseach went from being a hypothetical to a reality. Aside from obvious policy difference, the deep-rooted suspicions of Sinn Féin and the legacy of the Troubles meant the prospects of Mary Lou McDonald getting into government, let alone becoming Taoiseach, were gone within four days of the election with the party admitting approaches to other parties had run aground.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael wouldn’t touch Sinn Féin with a barge pole and the Green Party, Labour Party and Social Democrats had no interest in a grand left alliance, albeit one that didn’t add up to a majority arithmetically. Two years on and Sinn Féin has extended its position as the country’s best supported party. After taking power following the coup on Alan Kelly, one of Ivana Bacik’s first acts as new Labour leader was to rule out going into government with Sinn Féin. Either Bacik doesn’t want Labour back in government or the only option available is to go back in with Fianna Fáil and/or Fine Gael. And we all know how that has ended in the past.
The possibility of a first left-wing Taoiseach isn’t teasing for the left in the Republic, so why should they expect unionists to be embracing a nationalist First Minister. One rule up north and another down south. Parties down south are in no position to lecture their unionist brethren. Reminiscent of the late Rev Ian Paisley bellowing “Ulster Says No”, the Republic’s parties also say no to Sinn Féin.