Whether they like it or not, Sinn Fein and DUP must work together
Neither direct rule nor another election will do either party any favours — they must learn to co-exist, writes Rick Wilford
Nineteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement we are, once again, shuffling towards an impasse in what has felt like an interminable cycle of talks. The Secretary of State’s, James Brokenshire’s, decision to hit the pause button will, like as not, be met with weary resignation by the plain people of Northern Ireland despite the fact that they turned out in large numbers at the polls just six weeks ago.
Certainly, the public space is hardly chock-a-block with voters demanding the restoration of the power-sharing institutions that were so artfully and painfully crafted in 1998. The lack of public clamour is in itself telling — but how is it to be interpreted? Disaffection? Uninterest? Boredom? Cynicism? Actually, it’s probably a mix of all of the above: what a sharp contrast with the heady days of 1998 when, for a moment, it seemed that majorities of both communities felt that all would gain from the Agreement. That energy and optimism seems now to have dissolved into the air along with the heat generated by the wood pellet boilers.
No doubt there will be further informal discussions over the next fortnight or so in advance of the resumption of all-party, round-table talks towards the end of April, but hand-holding during the period by the UK and Irish Governments, while necessary, may well prove insufficient to restore devolution. Indeed, how Mr Brokenshire in particular conducts himself in the short-run will be an acid test of his political nous which, thus far, has proven less than compelling. He seems to lack the stature and sheer heft that has in the past enabled a number of his predecessors to get the show back on the road after earlier crises.
That said, unlike some other Secretaries of State the current tenant of Stormont House lacks a key resource, namely the direct hands-on involvement of the Prime Minister. Mrs May, like David Cameron, has adopted a more hands-off approach to Northern Ireland, after all her in-tray is laden with what she must consider more pressing matters, not least Brexit. And yet, Brexit will exert a disparate and telling impact on Northern Ireland, reason enough one might think to concentrate her mind on this troubled corner of the Union. But apparently not or perhaps not yet.
Of course, the Secretary of State’s efforts, together with those of his Irish counterpart, Charlie Flanagan, whether with the active involvement of their respective heads of government or not, can only succeed if the parties, especially the DUP and Sinn Fein, can themselves find some means of getting the institutions up and running once again. However, that assumes that both parties share the goal of restoring devolution.
Recall that in 1998, while David Trimble portrayed the Agreement as copper-fastening the Union, Gerry Adams defined it as a stepping stone to Irish unification. Perhaps for SF the Agreement has served its purpose. The nationalist surge at the March election which left SF breathing down the neck of the DUP has certainly reignited the campaign for a border poll now rebadged as a ‘unity referendum’ while its increased support in the opinion polls in Ireland has added a spring to its political step.
For those with a suspicious or a conspiratorial frame of mind, SF has its eyes more immediately on a much greater prize than the resurrection of the Executive and Assembly at Stormont. However, that is I think to miss a point: namely, that SF needs devolution back if only to demonstrate to the Irish electorate that it can be a reliable and constructive partner in a coalition government which is, after all, what our Executive model is.
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While SF has an instrumental view of devolution in NI, for the DUP and unionists in general it is freighted with the purpose articulated by David Trimble almost 20 years ago.
These contrasting interpretations of the 1998 Agreement by nationalists and unionists were part of its terrible beauty. For the former it kept open the door to reunification while for the latter it ensured, via the consent principle, the maintenance of the Union.
But the Union today is not what it was almost 20 years ago. The SNP’s renewed campaign for an independence referendum, coupled with the sea of uncertainty caused by the looming prospect of Brexit, has transformed the UK from a steady to a fluid state: from a unionist perspective, the foreseeable future bristles with doubt. For that very reason, it is little wonder that SF seeks to portray the UK’s difficulty as Ireland’s, and its own, opportunity. Yet, SF is itself in danger of overplaying its hand.
Should we get another Assembly election, an option that Mr Brokenshire may yet exercise (though I doubt it), then it is probably safe to assume that the unionist electorate will turn out in force to stifle the calls for a border poll. If that was the case, then the effects on our politics would be profound, including the further delay of restoring devolution. If the March election was bitter, then another in May or June could easily be even more vitriolic.
We know only too well that the end games of nationalism and unionism are mutually exclusive: the question is whether devolution can serve as a halfway house between the conflicting constitutional alternatives, at least in the short to medium term. Put another way: who, now, wants or needs devolution the most? Which of the two major parties are better prepared to accept half a loaf in order to restore some stability to our troubled polity? If the answer to that question is neither, and that instead we descend into ‘either-or’/’not an inch’ politics, then direct rule is the obvious card in the Secretary of State’s hand.
But direct rule is not a solution: it offers a salve rather than a remedy. What Northern Ireland needs more than ever is a preparedness to accommodate on the part of the major political players.
This seems to me to be achievable in terms of the policy issues in question. The UK Government does need to cede on legacy issues, the DUP has to dispense with its atavistic attitude to an Irish Language Act and SF has to abandon its demand that Arlene Foster should stand aside until the RHI inquiry has run its course. All are do-able.
What though cannot be legislated for is SF’s insistence upon an attitudinal change towards them by the DUP. We’ve all had to work alongside colleagues we don’t like and who don’t like us: the same is true for both SF and the DUP.