Has ‘flegs’ facilitated a crude retrenchment to factionalist politics?

Sinead O’Shea has an interesting take on general game in Northern Ireland. She’s been filming for much of the last year in Derry and other dissident hotspots over the last year so she has a fairly strong fix on the state of play in that quarter. She notices a difference not far removed from Eamonn McCann’s observations:

I have been been filming with dissidents from the Republican side. They have freely told me that they will never abide by the Belfast Agreement. They feel abandoned by Sinn Féin. They are correct, Sinn Féin don’t care about them. They don’t feel they need them. Sinn Féin have the numbers now and they can afford to assume statesmanlike positions.

The DUP don’t have the numbers. They need the extremist vote. They will continue to appease the “nutters.” That vote is angry and feels threatened.

Could all this mean a return to previous tensions?

At this point this seems unlikely, you need adequate opposition to forge a co-dependency of real vigour. Sinn Féin have managed to make themselves look good; they won’t get dragged into this, they have an eye on government in the South. Republican dissidents don’t have the manpower.

As McCann noted, loyalist paramilitaries were never under direct control of unionist politicians, whereas the provisionals were – from the internecine feuds of the mid 70s onwards – able to assert dominance and direct control over much of the paramilitary assets in hard line nationalist areas.

To this day Loyalist paramilitaries remain a fractious and unbiddable basket of jealous and vicious rivalries. And yet, since they and their pre Troubles predecessors they have rarely been found far from Unionist politicians.

One of Ian Paisley’s first documented forays into politics was to attend a meeting of representatives of loyalist civil society at UUP headquarters in Belfast during the IRA’s Border Campaign in the 1950s.

The truth is that the two parties have different objectives. Not long after the elections north and south of 2007, Sinn Fein’s main political objective switched to the south. After the 2011 successes in the south their ministerial appointments were reduced to a skeleton team.

They wrong footed everyone by taking on the Culture rather than the business brief at Stormont, and by putting all previous ministers out to grass.

Since then, nothing. OFMdFM has ground to a halt with very little business of any description being agreed across the board. Until, that is, the City Hall vote on the flags. It caused a furore, as they must have known it would, since their DUP fellow councillors had warned them from the start.

The numbers certainly heighten tensions, but despite much of the media focus on where the DUP is likely to face damage (ie, north and east Belfast), their concern is to get on with cannibalising the failing UUP vote as a bulwark against a rising nationalist tide.

The resulting retrenchment to crude factionalist politics in turn further squeezes the middle, and help both OFMdFM parties press their own sectional needs over any notion of a broader common good.

On the numbers, if there is pressure on the DUP is to drill into the UUP before it dissipates or converts to the political agnosticism of the Alliance Party. For them in this period of consolidation, every vote counts.

On the nationalist side Sinn Fein have left the SDLP to ‘wither on the vine’ and convive in its own demise (its voter base remains oddly impervious to SF’s more direct approaches). The best of their Stormont advisors have been moved to Leinster House to build a bridgehead, and continue the squeeze from there.

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