In media circles, it has been noted with some bemusement that SF’s preferred nomenclature for Direct Rule (to use the terms of their last election campaign just 8 months ago, handing power back to “the other island”) is “putting Stormont in mothballs”.
There appears to be a view forming within the party that it’s better for Sinn Fein to sit out Brexit and the next southern general election. [Party before country? – Ed] Well, yes. Probably.
Foster’s piece is worth reading in tandem with Sam McBride’s analysis in the News Letter to get a fuller view of what the DUP leader is up to:
Sinn Fein will not come out and say such a thing. The party will call for joint authority (knowing that is impossible under the Agreement) and will rail against the idea of Conservative ministers once again administering Northern Ireland.
But the party knows – and has over recent years been the clearest to articulate the fact – that the only alternative to power-sharing in Belfast is direct rule. The unpalatable choice for republicans is now between James Brokenshire and Arlene Foster.
A month ago today, Michelle O’Neill said that during a meeting with the Secretary of State she had “told him that there would be no return to the status quo and no return to direct rule”.
If the strength of the word “told” was deliberate, it was deliberately misleading.
Sinn Fein simply does not have the ability to stop direct rule – unless it agrees to enter an Executive. Until now, Sinn Fein’s demands for concessions before re-entering an Executive have not been couched in absolute terms.
Calls for an Irish language act and gay marriage have been prominent, but not set out as red lines.
So why would SF entertain such a volte face on their promises of just a few months ago. McBride notes:
In political terms, Sinn Fein’s two most vocal demands – an Irish language Act and same-sex marriage – are far more likely to be acceded to by Theresa May than by Mrs Foster.
There is therefore a certain political logic to Sinn Fein seeing virtue in a period of direct rule – particularly when Mrs Foster has just re-stated that she will not make concessions such as an Irish language act.
The increasingly close DUP-Conservative relationship at Westminster may be an impediment to the Tories really aggravating the DUP and would have to be balanced by some corresponding concessions to the DUP.
But even some in the DUP might be strategically content to see those two issues removed from the picture if it guarantees them five more years at the Stormont helm, heading towards Northern Ireland’s centenary in 2021.
And if the government did implement such legislation it would be a considerable goad to the DUP’s supporters, reminding them of the sorts of arguments which Ian Paisley laid before them a decade ago to justify his move into power-sharing.
Quite. There’s a widespread assumption that the assumption of the SF leadership that the project is always moving forward (like the proverbial revolutionary fish) is too easily accepted as a general truth.
The crocodile here is not Sinn Fein, but is more accurately a description of what the DUP has done to Sinn Fein’s attempt to ‘hold power’ in the north. Their hasty retreat will follow them like the crocodile did Captain Hook in Peter Pan.
It wasn’t simply a retreat from the institutions, but a retreat from the politics publicly subscribed to by Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams less than a year ago. McBride again:
…in the short term Sinn Fein may gain political advantage from a few months of direct rule, such a scenario poses fundamental questions for republicanism.
Just a year ago, Martin McGuinness warned against direct rule, saying that it would involve an “inevitable Tory onslaught on our public services and the most vulnerable in our society”.
And just a couple of months earlier Gerry Adams had similarly warned that “British direct rule” would involve “the full weight of a Tory assault on the welfare state”.
The Sinn Fein president asked: “We should ask those in favour of the institutions collapse do they really want to let the Tories impose water charges, increase student fees, impose prescription charges, end free travel for pensioners and slash public services in the North?
That would be a likely consequence if the talks had failed, or if the institutions had been suspended.” He pledged: “Sinn Féin will not hand over the political institutions and hard-won agreements to the Tories.”
And yet this is privately exactly what the Sinn Fein leadership is preparing its activists for. In trying to turn down the heat in her Irish News piece, Mrs Foster is teeing up an argument for why power should not be handed back to the Brits.
After the last few months, few of the Irish News readers will be convinced of her bona fides. But it may be that the the relative positions of the two parties in this argument will matter more in the longer run.
You can be very sure that SF’s southern rivals will be watching this one very carefully indeed.