Belfast Telegraph

David Gordon: Challenge for republicans is to find way to do constructive politics with unionists

By David Gordon

A great deal of the post-election focus has understandably been on how the DUP should respond to the dramatic results.

Yet it's clear that the other main Stormont parties are also facing challenges and big calls of their own - including Sinn Fein.

Gerry Adams, Michelle O'Neill and colleagues can savour the game-changing poll outcome.

But they will know that the 'game' is still ongoing, and that there is always a danger of overplaying a good hand.

If the devolved institutions are to be saved there is still going to have to be a deal of some kind with the DUP.

What terms will be sufficient to satisfy not only the Sinn Fein leadership, but the re-energised support base?

There are some observers who believe devolution is not so important to the party now, that the difficult 10-year marriage with the DUP can't or won't be saved.

Under this assessment, the focus will instead be on national and international stages - on making the case for a special EU status Brexit deal and pushing hard for a border poll.

A devolution-free scenario will have to involve a period of direct rule.

And that's a major gamble.

The Assembly has not been adored throughout the land over the past decade.

But Conservative Party rule from James Brokenshire and co might soon spark a wave of nostalgia for the Stormont Executive.

There's always a risk for politicians of expectations being raised too high in their base.

Despite the Sinn Fein surge and the changed landscape that emerged last week, there is not going to be a united Ireland a week next Thursday.

Nor is there even any sign that Theresa May's government will be interested in a border poll.

The Tory referendum experience has not been positive in recent years.

The issue of Scottish independence has certainly not been settled for a generation, and the EU poll has hardly seen off Nigel Farage and the other hardline Brexiteers.

More importantly, demographics alone won't produce the republican ideal of an agreed Ireland at peace with itself.

That can't be achieved with a ballot box in one hand and Viagra in the other.

The fundamental challenge facing republicans remains the same. That's finding a way to live, work and do constructive politics together with their unionist neighbours.

And that takes us back to messy, difficult talks with Arlene Foster and the DUP up on the Hill.

The UUP, SDLP and Alliance are in those talks too, and they also have some serious thinking to do.

All three parties opted for Opposition benches in the last Assembly, and threw themselves into that role with great energy.

If a DUP-Sinn Fein agreement can be reached, will they join a new Executive this time around and help make the deal stick?

They will obviously want assurances on their role and status in any new set-up.

All political parties need to stake out their own positions, maintain their profiles, and demonstrate their continued relevance on a daily basis.

The SDLP, UUP and Alliance obviously won't want their identities subsumed into an Executive dominated by the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Yet, joining an Executive and helping it to deliver good government also means making life easier for their political adversaries.

That's one of the in-built dilemmas of our power-sharing system.

The UUP has another difficult question to face. Is there anywhere else for it to go except down the path of unionist unity?

Its dalliance with David Cameron's Conservatives is rarely talked about these days, while the flirtation with the SDLP can't be hailed as an overwhelming success.

There will be a push from its grassroots for greater unionist co-operation.

It's an inevitable reaction to the depleted unionist numbers at the Assembly - and the significance being attached to the figures.

The principle "united we stand, divided we fall" is imprinted deep in the souls of a great many unionist voters.

Decisions might have to be taken by the UUP before very long.

If May opts for an early general election, Tom Elliott will face a fight to hang onto his seat, even with a pact with the DUP.

Ulster Unionist scars still hurt from all the DUP attacks over the years.

Making up will be hard to do.

The Assembly isn't sitting yet, but there's a lot to occupy the politicians and their parties.

Plenty of conundrums are piled up in and around the Stormont talks. That rasping noise you hear might just be the sound of heads being scratched.

  • David Gordon is the former Executive Press Secretary

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