“put aside the myth and deal with the here-and-now realities..”

Alex Kane in The News Letter on the continuing stalemate in the Northern Ireland Executive.

If Sinn Fein were serious about reaching agreement on a range of issues wider than their own personal agenda and cooperating with, rather than facing down, their political opponents, they might discover that it was easier to reach deals on the more controversial matters. Indeed, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that confrontation and crisis are the deliberately chosen features of their present strategy.

He ends by saying [page 2 of 3]

What real purpose, then, is served by the non-meeting of the Executive Committee and the tension-building around a Homecoming Parade? The underlying problem, of course, is that the DUP and Sinn Fein negotiated a carve-up at St Andrews, rather than a mutually advantageous sharing of power. Too many issues were left unresolved: and instead of the language of agreement we have the language of veto and triple locks. Neither of the two main parties can carry the show alone, and neither seems to have the inclination to carry it together.

All of which leaves two possible routes for them; a summit or a snap election (or maybe even both). Yet the very fact that a summit is required is a psychological victory for Sinn Fein. The DUP had us believe that the days of stop-start government were over and that concrete accountability had been placed at the heart of government. But that is clearly not the case. If Sinn Fein gets a summit, it will get concessions. More worryingly, though, there will be no effort to address the structural and institutional faults which led to the summit; which means that there will be more stalling and stalemate further down the line.

An election won’t solve the problem, either. Whilst I think it likely that the DUP would remain the largest unionist party (even though it could lose between five and eight seats to the UUP and TUV), Sinn Fein would probably pick up two or maybe three seats from the SDLP. In other words, there is a chance, albeit a slight one, that Sinn Fein would emerge as the largest party and claim the post of First Minister. That being the case, they need not fear an election. The very fact that, at worst, they would remain the largest party within nationalism means that they would still exercise a veto over the post-election Executive.

Whatever Sinn Fein’s real motives, be it the destruction of the process or cynical, self-serving brinkmanship, it is a particularly dangerous and thoroughly destabilising strategy. I said, above, that there were two possible routes, but there is a third one: Sinn Fein accepts the thrust and spirit of what was agreed in 1998 and 2007, and begins to exercise a less hostile influence at the heart of government.

Given the sheer scale of the problems that Northern Ireland’s economy and people could face in the next few years, it surely makes sense for Sinn Fein to put aside the myth and deal with the here-and-now realities. Their willingness to exploit the downturn for their own self-serving purposes suggests, however, that they remain trapped in the past and wrapped in hypocrisy.