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Republicans can cash in by propping up institutions

If a week is a long time in politics, then the New Year period must constitute an eternity in the political world.

The tragic and personal revelations involving family members of the two leaders of our largest political parties stunned many and could have unknown consequences for both political leaders.

However, the descent into political meltdown will not have been halted by the explosive revelations, though it is probable that the Robinsons' imbroglio will encourage Sinn Fein to allow an extra week or two before bringing the political pot at Stormont to the boil.

Sinn Fein can now do one of three things. It can swallow hard (again) and convince itself that giving more time to the DUP is a necessity that will ultimately bear fruit.

The problems facing the DUP are not inconsiderable: even before his wife Iris's problems, and his decision to stand aside for six weeks, Peter Robinson was clearly struggling to maintain control of his party, with senior representatives issuing contradictory statements regarding the possible timing of the devolution of policing and justice and a number of senior colleagues feeling confident enough to embarrass the party leader by snubbing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by walking out on her speech in the Assembly.

However, having set a Christmas deadline for a date for devolution, the Sinn Fein leadership must know that inaction is the one course of action that is not acceptable.

Alternatively, republicans could announce a date after which they would walk the walk and bring the institutions down if a concrete date for devolution was not agreed. Again, there are problems for republicans in proceeding down this path.

The primary difficulty for Sinn Fein is that it is not only faced with an obdurate DUP leadership, but two governments who do not appear to want to know about the emerging crisis, perhaps believing that talking it down will cajole republicans into acquiescing (as before) in saving the process.

Setting a public deadline for the survival of the institutions will convince the governments of the seriousness of republican intentions, but the probability that such an act would lead directly to the collapse of the institutions and a return to 'Big House' negotiations presents other challenges for Sinn Fein.

The political landscape in 2010 could alter considerably, with a Conservative administration in Britain and probable further hardening of the collective unionist stance as the Traditional Unionist Voice flex their muscles in the elections.

Republicans would need to set out a pre-negotiation stall complete with as many unpalatable concessions for unionism to consider as unionism would be seeking from nationalism in any return to 'Big House' negotiations.

This would likely encourage dissidents to step up their campaigns to capitalise on the polarising of attitudes that would accompany such discussions. Republicans must consider whether it is beneficial to take precipitative action removing the local institutions which have served to highlight to all strands of unionism that a shared future must be one premised upon equality.

Which brings us to the third option. Republicans have so far failed to cash in their political capital with the two governments for abiding by St Andrews and not walking away.

Consequently, the best course of action for Sinn Fein could be to extract concessions from the two governments as the price for continuing to prop up the institutions.

The Belfast Telegraph's opinion-polling confirms the depth of disillusionment within nationalism about the Stormont institutions.

But this disillusionment is more a product of the DUP's incessant sectarian baiting of nationalists within the institutions and not - crucially - a product of the failure to have policing and justice powers placed in the hands of a non-nationalist minister at Stormont.

That distinction is crucial as it empowers republicans to creatively seek a way out of the current impasse that might involve parking progress on policing and justice while advancing the Irish nationalist agenda in other ways.