Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein strategists under pressure to come up with a new big plan

As all sides voice a sense of relief at a trouble-free Twelfth, Malachi O'Doherty asks what the party's next move might be?

Imagine you are a conspiratorial Sinn Fein leader looking for a hand to play. The current situation is complicated. It has not worked out quite as you expected in March, when you reaped a huge reward from the electorate for putting it up to the DUP and pulling down the Executive.

Then everything looked plain and simple. The old strategy led by Martin McGuinness of sucking up a little humiliation, but keeping the project in place, appeared to have run its course. Your followers were telling you that Martin, God bless him, was making eejits of you all and that the DUP was plainly bigoted and either incompetent or corrupt or both.

Sure Arlene Foster wouldn't even shake the hand that shook the hand of the Queen herself, every time the chance was there. Okay, her father had been shot by the Provos and her school bus had been bombed, but other people get over these things. That was the reasoning.

So, there you were in March, rewarded by the electorate for your stand and with the ball at your feet.

Nationalism had pulled level with pro-Agreement unionism.

A tilt in the balance between the two communities that most thought was still 20 years off was there in front of you, achieved through ardent communalism and an appeal to the rights of gays and minorities.

In short, you had played a blinder.

The question was, what were you going to cash in your chips for?

Michelle O'Neill had insisted that Arlene Foster would still have to stand down as First Minister, even though her own party support had rallied to her. Arlene had also flourished in the election at the expense of the Ulster Unionists, presumably because a lot of people wanted to say by their vote that there was no way that Sinn Fein was going to dictate who took office for unionists.

So, being realistic, it was never going to be possible to demand the scalp of Arlene Foster.

Negotiations stuttered to a half start and the issues on the table were the Irish Language Act, respect for nationalists and minorities and a few bits and bobs.

Even without any of this, things had changed.

Near parity in the Assembly meant a few things.

The petition of concern, which had allowed the DUP to rule like Brookeborough, despite power sharing, and decide for us all on issues like same-sex marriage, was not so clear cut.

And how was anyone going to get Michelle O'Neill to take the deputy title to a party that it was drawing level with.

The strategy was then, either to settle after a bit of humping and grumping for something that could be assuredly not the 'status quo' (hint: the election had just erased the status quo) or it was something else. That something might be a bigger game around Brexit which would benefit by having Stormont in cold storage.

There were clear gains to be made.

One was that the DUP would be effectively cut out of the Brexit negotiations. We are talking ancient history here, like three months ago.

Another was that Gerry Adams was looking indispensable again. He had come back up north to crash the Assembly and install Michelle O'Neill as his representative on earth.

Gerry likes being indispensable.

But what moves would a republican conspirator be making now?

The March plan has been damaged.

Theresa May called an election and created, to everyone's surprise, a dependency on the DUP. The DUP's vote shot up.

That means that an Assembly election has to be avoided for the advances made in March are likely to be lost again. How would that look?

Arlene Foster cannot now be cut out of anything. She will be close to the Brexit negotiations after all, just as Sinn Fein might seek to be through the Irish government.

This week, Sinn Fein intimated that it might take a minority place in a coalition in the Dail after the next election.

Why even wait? If an election looms, SF might be the Taoiseach-maker that could forestall it. The reward would be a presence close to the negotiations on the status of the border after Brexit.

So, if I was a Sinn Fein strategist and Brexit was my bigger concern, I might quite like to get into government in the South, but what would I do about the North?

I would find myself in a tricky position.

Everybody thinks that the party is stalling devolution over a determination that an Irish Language Act would be stand-alone rather than part of a broader act that included Ulster Scots.

No one seriously believes, surely, that this is a question over which devolution should be denied. So, as a strategist you need something else.

You need to show clear good cause why republicans can't share power with the DUP.

And you probably also want to embarrass the hell out of the Tories for having anything to do with them.

That all suggests that you would have wanted a good old raucous Twelfth, just when the English media is asking: who is the DUP anyway? And you didn't deliver.

Now isn't that interesting?

It reminds me of Gerry Adams coming out of custody in 2014, after Martin McGuinness and Bob Mor had been howling from a Falls Road platform about 'dark forces' in the PSNI. Gerry held a press conference at which he complained about the food in holding centres and pledged himself to working with the PSNI for the good of the peace.

He acts the good boy when you least expect him to, when the opportunity for greatest possible mischief is right in front of him.

He is like the brat you had to invite to your child's birthday party and he has turned up with his hair combed and a nice wee present for you too.

So, perhaps the strategy now is to get Stormont back, avoid another election which might give the DUP back its majority, and not to look too cantankerous, because you want to be more electable in the South, where you might be fighting for seats before Christmas.

We are having a lovely summer. It's because somebody somewhere is up to something.

The Sinn Fein conspirator is thinking that maybe they shouldn't have crashed the executive in January and that the trajectory from then, which had seemed to bold and invigorating, is now carrying them into uncomfortable territory, towards possible humiliation.

Best get it over with.

And who's daft idea was all that in the first place? Isn't it time he was gone?

Malachi O'Doherty's new book, Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life, is published in September by Faber and Faber.

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