Last week, Arlene Foster’s olive branch to Sinn Fein was summarily rejected. This was despite the positive and flexible tone of her statement and her promise, on the restoration of the Executive, “ ... to bring forward legislation to address culture and language issues within a time-limited period to be agreed”. She added that the DUP had nothing to fear from the Irish language in itself.
This statement represented a public softening of the rejectionist attitude of the DUP on the number one red-line issue, an Irish Language Act. Short of absolutely capitulating on this issue, the DUP leader could hardly have made a much stronger public statement of her position.
Implicit in her statement was an acceptance of an Irish Language Act in principle and a commitment to legislate for it within a short timetable. The reality is that, even if the Executive was agreed to be established tomorrow by all the parties, it would take six months before the legislation could be passed by the Assembly in any event.
The fact that Sinn Fein immediately rejected the proposal without clarifying her remarks, or suggesting some further elaboration about them, highlights the hardline position of the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, with regard to the restoration of the Executive.
Sinn Fein has taken a strategic view that the Assembly and Executive are expendable and do not have to be restored. They are prepared to weather out the problems that direct rule from London will bring and put up with the freeze on politics within the north that would be consequent on direct rule happening.
During a period of prolonged and indefinite direct rule, the DUP would be damaged through the loss of their substantial Assembly representation and all that goes with it, including their MLAs, their constituency offices, the infrastructure of staff and advisors and the financial support that accrues from the Assembly.
As a result, the DUP will become a weakened political force and Sinn Fein would hope, as they successfully did to Trimble’s UUP, that the DUP would become divided and fractured after a period of indefinite Westminster rule.
The object of the exercise is to weaken — and, if possible, destroy — the DUP and to engage directly with the British Government, which they can represent as an ogre, presiding over a region deficient in public funding and economic development, due to Brexit.
Everything that is bad will be the fault of the British and everything that is good will be as a result of Sinn Fein squeezing a concession out of that same, bad British Government.
In a nutshell, Sinn Fein have abandoned the partnership spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and strive to put themselves into a position of complete political superiority in the north and, in the meantime, concentrating all their major efforts in achieving power in government in the south.
Their success in the Assembly elections in March and in the snap General Election in June, where they gained South Down and Foyle and regained Fermanagh and South Tyrone, has given them a huge boost in the nationalist community in overshadowing the SDLP, their only serious rivals.
Direct rule will also greatly damage the SDLP, as they are now totally dependent on the Assembly for their political relevance and material support, having lost all their Westminster seats. Without the Assembly to operate from, the SDLP could languish in a political limbo.
Sinn Fein will hope that, during that period of limbo, the party will become politically irrelevant and die. As a result, Sinn Fein will then have eliminated all opposition to themselves in the north.
In any event, Sinn Fein now believe they are untouchable and can do anything that they like, as they will always retain the obliging votes of the nationalist community.
They know they can withstand the public outcry about hospital lists and education cuts and can advocate abortion and refuse to sit in Westminster with impunity, as they hold the monopoly of power in the nationalist community.
Once they have achieved political power in the south — which is a real possibility — they can revisit the north and maybe devise a more flexible strategy.
But without the restraining and conciliatory influence of the late Martin McGuinness, who was personally committed to the development of a dynamic political partnership between unionism and nationalism, politics here is at the tender mercy of Gerry Adams’s ruthless and long-term strategy of destroying political unionism.
Adams has no serious commitment to partnership, or power-sharing, beyond it being a convenient political tactic from time to time. He does not give a hoot for Stormont and would be quite happy to see its demise.
Therefore, bar a miracle, the prospects of success in the latest round of interminable talks are nil.