Belfast Telegraph

Dangerous and combative strategy could well end in failure

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill addresses the media surrounded by party colleagues in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings, Stormont. David Young/PA Wire
Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill addresses the media surrounded by party colleagues in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings, Stormont. David Young/PA Wire

By Anthony McIntyre

Less than a fortnight ago the "great and the good" assembled in Derry to bury Martin McGuinness and eulogise him for having abandoned the politics of coercion in favour of consent as part of a search for a resolution of the long running Northern conflict.

Now they are faced with the task of resurrecting the political institutions which, for many, McGuinness came to personify because of an almost 10-year tenure in the role of Deputy First Minister. There, he had joint responsibility for overseeing the type of internal power-sharing solution favoured by the British state since Sunningdale in 1973.

As they lowered him into the ground, they raised shoulder high the concept of power-sharing within a partitioned Northern Ireland, under the unalloyed sovereignty of London. As the last breath exhaled from the body of McGuinness, plans were already under way to breathe life back into the North's power-sharing executive.

That the patricians turned out in such force at the funeral was indicative of the importance attached to not interring the institutions along with the institution's man.

That high-octane investment of political energy in the funerary rites comes with a political price: do not be held responsible for scuttling the ship that has brought you so far.

Despite the approach of Easter, even chiming as it will with the evangelical religious sentiment so at home in the DUP, the biblical myth of resurrection might seem redundant in the Northern context where it has long been quipped that no pessimist was ever proved wrong.

Stormont is proving even harder to bring back to life than the Christian God. A feat that took only three days. Sinn Fein, having already collapsed the institutions and subsequently calling a halt to the post-election negotiations - described by many as shambolic - risk overplaying their hand.

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George Mitchell once described the party as being addicted to over-negotiating.

Discursively, they are sailing close to the wind of perceived negativity and risk losing the moral high ground accrued through the political deification of McGuinness.

The DUP thus far have resisted succumbing to the paroxysm of rage which the presence of Gerry Adams tends to bring out in unionism.

The party freefall was halted to some extent by Arlene Foster's strategic parachuting into the McGuinness funeral where she was applauded in church.

There has been a remarkable clawing back of the ground they had previously churned up and kicked in the face of nationalism. Its "give the people what they want" has a more positive inflection than Sinn Fein's "the government must stop pandering to the DUP". The DUP has, against all odds and expectations, managed to sound conciliatory, leaving Sinn Fein to wax combative.

It senses that the public will be more forgiving of a failure to strike a deal with Adams than it would be if Michelle O'Neill was seen as the pre-eminent Sinn Fein negotiator. Adams, upping the stakes, is making the argument that in the wake of McGuinness, reaching a sustainable agreement is a hard ask.

In a double-edged comment, he referred to the failure to have previous agreements honoured: "When you have somebody as big and as strong and formidable as Martin, he could carry that to a certain degree for the rest of us."

Which hardly masks the obvious: McGuinness is being set up to carry the blame for the situation ever having been allowed to sink beneath the waterline. If Sinn Fein fails to have it resurface, all roads lead to London. James Brokenshire has all but confirmed as much.

With the re-emergence of the old peace process ruse of ultimate deadline by endless postponement, extra time is now on offer.

Will Sinn Fein risk squandering its enhanced political capital by failing to invest it in the only institutional bank in town? A resort to the status quo of Direct Rule, even in the uncharted waters of Brexit, will leave the party looking as if it sold a horse and bought a saddle.

  • Dr Anthony McIntyre is a former IRA prisoner, journalist and co-founder of The Blanket, an online magazine that critically analysed the peace process. He blogs at:

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