How Sinn Fein only undermined themselves by turning on their own partners in Government…

In case you missed it, here’s my analysis of the debacle up to and following the resignation of Daithi McKay written for and published by the Irish Independent on Saturday.

The nine-year government coalition between Sinn Féin and the DUP has been an odd and largely unproductive affair. In spite of the popular Chuckle Brothers routine between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, the positive fruits of that partnership have always been more apparent than evident.

And under the skin, relations have often been strained.

So last July, when Mick Wallace dropped a bombshell into the Dáil and suggested that a Northern Ireland politician was set to benefit from the cream of a Nama deal to the tune of £7m, the temptation to make hay with it was too much to resist.

With little hard evidence emerging, public speculation quickly settled on Peter Robinson as the chief suspect. A slow drip of fragmentary details about secret meetings filled the summer’s front pages.

Relations between Sinn Féin and the DUP have never been healthy. In spite of the Haass talks the government they led was in stasis over parading, flag disputes and dealing with the past.

Into this vacuum came an opportunity for Sinn Féin to pressurise the DUP leader and create havoc in the ranks of his party in the unlikely shape of Loyalist agitator and self-publicist Jamie Bryson.

Mr Bryson, who first came to prominence in the flag dispute of 2012, began using his blog to feed tasty titbits blended with a range of allegations against Mr Robinson and members of his family.

By September, Stormont’s Finance Committee had established its own inquiry into Mr Wallace’s allegations under the chairmanship of Sinn Féin’s North Antrim MLA Daithí McKay.

On foot of these internet postings, Mr Bryson was called as an expert witness. This largely comprised of reading from a prepared script, containing material not previously shared with the committee.

Last week it emerged that Mr McKay and a constituency staff member had coached Mr Bryson in private, advising him on how to talk about Mr Robinson without interventions from other members until the end.

In the context of Northern Ireland’s tense sectarian landscape, it was a risky form of collusion for the North Antrim MLA, not least given his profile in a controversial parade dispute in Rasharkin.

Within hours of the story breaking, Sinn Féin suspended him from the party. Mr McKay promptly stepped down from the Assembly, forcing the party to replace him with the man he had replaced back in 2007.

As the committee reconvened on Tuesday, under the chairmanship of the young newly elected DUP MLA Emma Little Pengelly, another possible reason for Mr McKay’s hasty departure emerged.

In the correspondence between Mr McKay’s office and Mr Bryson, the now Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was named as someone who could make an intervention in support of Mr Bryson’s testimony.

Now, whilst Mr McKay’s rash and amateurish manoeuvre looks like a lone wolf operation, most of Sinn Féin’s subsequent assault on Mr Robinson appears to be based on the fruits of that illicit operation.

New SDLP leader Colum Eastwood was quick to spot the chink in Sinn Féin’s armour when he asked if Mr Ó Muilleoir had been “prepped in advance of Jamie Bryson’s choreographed appearance”.

The Finance Minster now must answer questions from his own oversight committee as to whether he had seen the Bryson-McKay correspondence in advance of the young Loyalist’s appearance.

Outside the deputy First Minister, Mr Ó Muilleoir is one of Sinn Féin’s most popular figures in Northern Ireland. At 57, he is one of its few senior public representatives without a military background.

He is certainly not someone Sinn Féin will give up to opponents at Stormont without a serious fight, not least because his background in entrepreneurial business is so crucial to the party’s late, if derisory, play for the Catholic middle-class vote.

A year on and it is strange that the legacy of last year’s story is that Sinn Féin is facing complicating problems just as the DUP has successfully opened a new political slate for itself.

The allegations against Mr Robinson remain unproven, but through a combination of ill-health, and the damage from this and previous controversies, by last Christmas he was gone.

His last big public act was that bizarre in-out Executive protest, initiated after Mike Nesbitt left the Executive over alleged Provisional IRA involvement in the murder of Kevin McGuigan last August.

Humiliating though it undoubtedly was at the time, it bought time to negotiate the cannily named Fresh Start Agreement and ensure that the power-sharing Executive survived intact.

It also gave the DUP a chance to rally around a new political leader, in the shape of Fermanagh MLA Arlene Foster. And in doing so Mr Robinson has taken the media’s most intense interest with him.

Even as the brains behind the modernisation of the DUP and its entry into the mainstream of Northern Ireland politics, Mr Robinson was always viewed by the media as an outdated relic of an older Paisleyite era.

Despite her own and her family’s suffering at the hands of the IRA, Ms Foster as a politician hails from a newer era. And, unlike some older generation Unionists, she no longer publicly wears that pain on her sleeve.

As the only mainstream UK party to back Brexit, success at the Assembly elections was followed in short order with a better than expected showing for the Leave campaign in Northern Ireland.

Stormont’s power-sharing arrangements ask a lot from all of those who take part. The battle-a-day the DUP and Sinn Féin promised nine years ago often looks like low level, passive-aggressive war.

Sinn Féin has scored at its highest from being anti-DUP, and exploiting the sectarian base of that distinction, and shied away from developing its own constructive and implementable programmes.

No coalition will ever deliver if the two main parties at the core of Stormont’s institutions only seek to undermine each other, rather than looking for a strong mutual basis on which to run Northern Ireland’s affairs.

Far from benefiting Sinn Féin, the decision to turn on Mr Robinson has played into the hands of the DUP, and in the process, poisoned the atmosphere inside an administration that now faces an official opposition.

Losing one MLA and having to launch a root-and-branch defence of another is a poor start to the political season. It’s hard to see what’s capable of changing that grudging old sectarian reflex.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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