Sinn Fein have outflanked the inept DUP and also avoided the blame for talks collapse
Mainstream nationalists are indifferent to an Irish Language Act, but it is an emblematic issue, says Alban Maginness
Ash Wednesday, a holy day of sackcloth and ashes, was a deliciously apt occasion for the collapse of the talks to restore Stormont. Now we are into a long Lenten blame game, as to whose fault it was that the negotiations imploded.
In the immediate aftermath of the Stormont shambles, Gregory Campbell MP was fronted as the DUP's media spokesperson, despite the fact he wasn't even an negotiator.
Arlene's absence from the media raised more questions than answers. Was she absent because she was huffing, because she couldn't carry her own party with her on the draft agreement on the Irish Language Act?
Gregory could well be the undertaker of the Assembly. He is the perfect pantomime villain in politics. You know when he appears that all is lost and we sink further into the slough of despond. His performance on BBC's The View last Thursday was a virtuoso performance in public relations mismanagement.
Instead of trying to salvage something for a media-shy Arlene Foster, he reinforced the negative message of the DUP's inflexibility, intolerance and unreasonableness. Their failure to disclose the contents of any proposed deal also led to further suspicion and unhelpful speculation. Gregory succeeded in plucking further damage from the DUP's already damaged image, by his evasive answers and his sneering attitude to the well-restrained interviewer, Mark Carruthers.
Sinn Fein must have been delighted by his disastrous performance, guaranteeing to them game, set and match over whose fault it was for the collapse of the negotiations.
Now we have the usual unthinking, but popular chorus of "blame the politicians" and "cut off their salaries". This ignores one glaring fact - that our politicians were elected by the same people that complain about political deadlock at Stormont. Our politicians are not aliens and they did not beam down from Mars.
They are homegrown and reflect the same sectarian prejudices that we all share in the secrecy of our hearts. And as for the self-righteous non-voters, who are now smugly washing their hands of the whole dirty business of politics, they fail to remember Edmund Burke's warning that: "Evil triumphs when good men do nothing."
The non-voters are just as bad as those who voted to retain the dominance of the sectarian juggernauts.
The problem with the DUP is that they are constantly fixated with the tactical defence of their party's position and they have no discernible strategy. The DUP seem to react to things, rather than push an agenda of their own. It is as if they are fuelled by political emotion, rather than a thoughtful vision for the future of unionism.
Sinn Fein on the other hand are expert tacticians and have a determined strategy. They will be rightly congratulating themselves on not just a successful damage-limitation exercise in the wake of the collapse of the negotiations, but a victory in terms of media presentation.
They cleverly outfoxed the DUP on the Irish Language Act and now carry no blame for the collapse, especially among a compliant nationalist electorate. Their outflanking of the DUP on a stand-alone Irish Language Act was tactically superb.
While the mainstream of nationalist voters are indifferent to an act - stand alone or otherwise - they are not indifferent to being treated with contempt by the DUP. The Act is emblematic, just like the flags issue and goes deep into the cultural psyche of nationalism.
The irony is that the Irish Language Act had no bearing on the scuttling of the Executive by Martin McGuinness in January 2017. The fall of the Executive was ostensibly over Arlene Foster and the RHI scandal. That has magically disappeared as a red line issue, along with other issues and now Arlene is no longer persona non grata as First Minister.
Somewhere along the meandering and tortuous talks process, Sinn Fein slipped in the Irish Language Act as a red line issue and the DUP failed to deal with it in a non-confrontational way. They allowed the Irish Language Act to become a monstrously disproportionate issue, which, given the fact that there are language acts in Wales and Scotland, it clearly is not.
They stupidly allowed the focus to be on whether it was standalone - instead of conceding the legislation in principle - and then concentrating on the actual content of the act itself.
While both parties desire a functioning Assembly, it is the DUP that needs an Assembly more. Sinn Fein do not need an Assembly, and are now comfortably in a position where they can afford to wait until the DUP come to terms. Indeed, thanks to the clumsiness of the DUP, Sinn Fein can also now avoid any criticism in the south, simply by highlighting the DUP's rejection of a reasonable deal to get the Assembly back.
With the inept DUP as political enemies, who needs friends?