“it belongs to another world that has long passed…”

The First and deputy First Ministers may have had separate, but equal, meetings with Taoiseach Brian Cowen today [more on that stalemate here] against a backdrop of internal Fianna Fáil dissent over the medical card confusion, growing unease about the Home Choice Loans scheme, and criticism from the Church of Ireland, if not any mention, yet, of the Lisbon manoeuvring.. And, in referencing Brian Lenihan’s comments, Henry McDonald makes an important observation in his Guardian article – just as protest politics appears to be on Sinn Féin’s agenda again.

If the Stormont coalition – a devolved administration still inside the UK – is no longer envisaged as a “stepping stone” towards fusion with the republic, then perhaps it would be better to be outside rather inside the devolved institutions, to be a party of protest and retain your old radical edge.

This devolution-doomsday scenario is probably a far away prospect even for disillusioned Provos. There is no other game in town. Instead the Sinn Féin leadership is seeking to re-engage the British and Irish governments in the political process, which will entail urging Brian Cowen and Gordon Brown to apply joint pressure on the DUP to bend to Sinn Féin’s will.

The trouble with this strategy is that it belongs to another world that has long passed. The Cowen government in Dublin might issue statements urging the DUP to move on policing, now echoing Brown’s plea for them to do the same during his last visit to Belfast. But the idea that two prime ministers currently engaged in an existential struggle to save their banking systems and stop their economies sliding into recession and mass unemployment are going to focus their energies to resolve the petty squabbles at Stormont is hopelessly naive.

Lenihan’s exasperation over his fellow citizens opting to shop in “another state” betrays the commonly held view of southern society that has welcomed the final fruits of the peace process but has little enthusiasm for paying the huge economic, social and political costs of absorbing the north. They don’t say it too loud down in Dublin – they are often drowned out by the romantic republican ballads struck up in pubs just before closing time – but the Ireland’s silent majority believes the north should already be at rest; neither they nor their political leaders in the Dáil are going to expend most of their energy on the sectarian circus at Stormont. The parties up there are on their own.

The “mad old uncle” in the [Northern] attic, indeed.