Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Whisper it, but victory at polls for Comrade Corbyn might just be what it takes to reboot Stormont

If the Labour leader makes it all the way to Downing Street, the DUP would probably heave a sigh of relief (while never admitting it publicly, of course)

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

With Secretary of State Julian Smith confirming that formal talks to restore the Assembly will begin on December 16 with local parties and both governments (assuming, of course, that the Conservatives win), it's worth looking back at what Arlene Foster said in a PA interview a few days ago.

"There are many people in Northern Ireland who love the Irish language and we have no desire to put a barrier up to them accessing public services. And, therefore, we believe there's ways of doing that through legislation and, indeed, through facilitation and we can do that, that's not a problem. But why are we holding up the Assembly while we're trying to work out the details of all of that?"

Does that sound like someone who is prepared to row back from the DUP's position in February 2018, when the party didn't commit to a deal (which Sinn Fein said had been agreed) to reboot the Assembly?

Does it sound like someone who will sit at a table with Michelle O'Neill three days after the election and hold out even the possibility of the sort of compromise and concession necessary for progress?

Well, a lot depends on the election results. If, for example, Boris Johnson wins with a comfortable majority and is able to get his deal (complete with the border stuff that unionism hates) through fairly easily and quickly - without any input required from the DUP - the DUP is going to need another power-base.

It will have to find somewhere it can exercise influence and steer an agenda.

The only place for that power-base is in the Assembly and Executive.

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But, as it stands, that would require the party to agree to something very substantial on the Irish language.

But compromising from a position of weakness and fear (and many unionists would be fearful of the consequences of Johnson's actions) is never easy.

It may also depend on how well the DUP itself does on December 12.

A loss of votes (and the 2017 general election was the party's best-ever result) and seats (North and South Belfast are clearly vulnerable) would be a political and psychological blow for the party.

And it could be compounded by unionism not, for the first time ever, returning a majority of MPs from Northern Ireland (nine DUP and nine nationalist is possible).

Unionism doesn't have an overall majority in the Assembly; it doesn't have a majority of MEPs; it doesn't have a majority in either Belfast or Londonderry councils; it doesn't return a majority of MLAs from Belfast. So, the loss of a majority of MPs would be particularly damaging. Would that sort of loss, accompanied by a victory for Johnson, encourage the DUP towards a compromise for the sake of the Assembly?

But what if Jeremy Corbyn is Prime Minister on December 13?

I think the DUP would probably heave a sigh of relief and, while never saying it in public, would be quietly praying that his success, a second referendum and a victory for Remain would get them off an awful lot of very uncomfortable hooks: not least the 30-month 'confidence and supply' arrangement with the Conservatives.

One of the primary reasons - although there were many others - why I thought a deal to restore the Assembly was unlikely was precisely because of that arrangement; it was always going to lead to issue after issue in which the other Executive parties believed the DUP was prioritising May or Johnson over Northern Ireland.

I also think a victory for Corbyn, along with the increased likelihood that Brexit would be removed from the dynamics in a subsequent referendum, makes it a lot easier for Sinn Fein to cut a deal with the DUP.

The victory for Leave came as much of a shock to it as it did to the DUP.

Indeed, I suspect Sinn Fein only abandoned its decades' long opposition to the EU because it calculated Remain was inevitable and also because EU membership was enormously popular in the south and opposition to it would do electoral damage to Sinn Fein candidates down there. But the party also realised that the unexpected victory for Leave - and the upending of politics across the entire UK - had produced a once-in-a-lifetime "England's misfortune is Ireland's opportunity" moment - the sort of moment it couldn't ignore.

And as small-'n' nationalism, small-'u' unionism, Remain unionism, civic nationalism/republicanism across Ireland, along with the Irish government all began to worry about the consequences of Brexit, it was apparent to Sinn Fein that 'A Nation Once Again' rhetoric might finally be converted to reality. So, why bother with an Assembly? Why bother trying to make Northern Ireland look stable?

Why not just go for broke and put all of their political/electoral/propaganda energies into the unity project?

Yet, while that may have shifted the dynamics here, it seems to have had an unexpected consequence in the south, where the party had a very bad day in the recent local government and Euro elections, while its opinion poll results since have continued to stagnate.

So, it might now be helpful to the party if it was able to get itself back into government in Northern Ireland and provide hard evidence that it can make coalition of some sort work.

It also knows that support for Irish unity - which requires support on both sides of the border - will probably decrease in the short-term in the event of Brexit not happening.

Apart from all that, I can't see there being much southern appetite for unity and a border poll on the back of a Johnson victory and enormously heightened unionist fears.

A Corbyn victory would also settle unionist/loyalist nerves. My gut feeling is that it has reached the point at which most unionists would be quite content to let Brexit disappear altogether if it means that a potential existential threat to Northern Ireland's constitutional status also disappears.

In fact, so content would the vast majority be they would probably be fairly sanguine about a significant compromise on the Irish language.

They know too that devolution is almost certainly preferable to a direct rule option that could lead to the House of Commons introducing a whole raft of legislation unionists would be uncomfortable with.

I'm not sure that a deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein is even all that likely when the next negotiations begin (if they even do) on December 16.

But at this point it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that a successful outcome is more likely if Corbyn, rather than Johnson, wins.

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