Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland election might seem pointless but republicans see it as an opportunity to reset imbalance within Executive

By Daithi McKay

None of the major political parties is excited about the election that has been thrust upon them. After a series of polls the piggy banks are empty, and with a reduction in MLAs from 108 to 90, most parties will lose a greater or lesser number of seats.

The Sinn Fein message had been repeated time and time again. Arlene Foster must stand aside.

No ifs. No buts. She must 'take her oil' to save the present Executive.

This lady was not for turning.

That decision will cost the DUP.

Yes, it will return as the largest party, but it is in for a bumpy ride, and will inevitably lose some MLAs along the way.

This Assembly term is history.

Martin McGuinness was clear.

Sinn Fein will not be reappointing to the position of Deputy First Minister.

McGuinness didn't want to be in this situation either.

He provided the First Minister with an opportunity to take an extended Christmas break, which would have given the Fermanagh MLA a chance to demonstrate leadership and humility.

Her arrogance led her to foolishly pass up that opportunity.

That was not the only bridge that was burned. Republican views hardened significantly when the DUP decided to put the Deputy First Minister and his health in their political sights.

When McGuinness worked with both Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson over the last decade, he showed kindness and humility.

The result of that was a remarkable friendship with members of the Paisley family that still continues to this day.

Robinson was given the space and time to deal with a difficult personal situation in 2010 that helped extend his time in the First Minister's office by another five years.

McGuinness could have turned on his Executive partner and worked that situation to his own advantage.

He chose not to, because his top priority over the past decade has been about building strong relationships.

He acted as a statesman should.

When the shoe was on the other foot, Foster shamelessly used her Executive partner's health as a decoy, deflecting attention from her own political shortcomings while Minister at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment

Foster should have played the ball, not the man.

The anger in Sinn Fein at her approach to McGuinness is palpable.

Republicans now wish to see unresolved issues back on the table. After an election, a lot of matters will require agreement before the institutions can be restored.

Outstanding commitments to the Irish language community and legacy issues will be close to the top of that list.

Regardless of whether the election results are the same or not, it is important for the public to have their say.

DUP and Sinn Fein will lose seats in numerical terms on the 2016 baseline.

If the DUP goes under 30 seats, then it will lose its automatic petition of concern.

This could herald in an Assembly that has a more varied output of legislation, without any single party having a blocking mechanism.

That can only be a good thing.

Sinn Fein will face a political challenge from People Before Profit in Belfast and Derry.

Elsewhere in the north, however, there is no such threat.

The SDLP may have some new and very articulate performers in its Assembly team, but it is not offering anything radically different from its rivals.

There will be an election. There will then be talks.

If Claire Sugden is not returned, there will be the added dilemma of finding an agreeable replacement as Justice Minister.

Increasingly, there is an argument within Sinn Fein that a tougher line needs to be taken with its partners at Stormont Castle.

No more second class treatment of the Irish language.

No longer should nationalists be locked out of holding the Ministry of Justice.

The DUP position blocking equal marriage is also untenable.

An election may seem like a pointless exercise to some.

However, republicans are starting to see this as an opportunity to reset the imbalance in the Executive.

After Paul Givan's Christmas Gaeltacht cut aimed at the Irish speaking community, and Foster behaving like she heads a one party administration, a lot of nationalists and republicans are simply saying enough is enough.

That is why Sinn Fein is looking beyond the election to a wide-ranging negotiations process, not a sitting Assembly.

If the DUP continues to take an approach to government of having everything its own way, then it could be some time before MLAs ever return to the leather benches in Stormont.

The DUP had its 'status quo' - it blew it.

  • Daithi McKay was a Sinn Fein MLA for North Antrim from 2007 until 2016

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