Was it only yesterday that conventional wisdom had it that a confident Sinn Fein were carrying all before them and that the DUP were left lumbering behind, cross and near to open rowing? The result ending in deadlock and near-breakdown?
Two subtly written articles in the Irish News this week speaking with the voice of moderate nationalism have sounded notes of alarm that the boot may now be on the other foot and it’s feeling uncomfortable. The unsubtle version of the point is that Arlene Foster has been raising the dreaded standard of unionist triumphalism once again and that Sinn Fein and Martin McGuinness for some unfathomable reason are letting her get away with it. This is a misreading.
For Fionnuala O’Connor, Sinn Fein’s calm acceptance of a unionist, albeit an independent one as justice minister, was a cardinal point. Where pray was the trade off?
There was no lingering McGuinness awkwardness. He had nothing to announce as his gain from the deal. Clearly, the deal was everything in itself.
Playing chief stooge in Arlene’s show will stretch every sinew of the retired warrior. Participation in a cross-community Stormont at the cost of holding his tongue will further test Sinn Féin’s northern electoral support, and strategy.
Arlene’s ‘The DUP c’est moi’ routine (must irk the colleagues eventually, no?) got another weekend airing, in reply to a question about the new justice minister’s talk of possibly ‘some constructive change’ on single-sex marriage and abortion law.
As the new executive was a-making former SF press officer Jim Gibney wrote in these pages, in a slot that until now has invariably toed the party line, that Sinn Féin would ‘no doubt respond to the hubris of Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton who have said there will be no Sinn Féin justice minister, no money for legacy inquests and no Irish language act.’
So far, the SF response has been to roll over again.
Denis Bradley makes a similar case more diplomatically, beginning with recognition that that we are in a new era.
On the surface, it is only a short step and a few seats away from the last mandate but in the realm of psychology and expectation it is a different universe.
The next few years will see a heavy concentration on the economy, jobs and good governance. The two party executive will be out to prove that they can do better this time round. The lack of money and oppositional criticism in an atmosphere of public scepticism may even goad the parties into quicker and more difficult decisions. That is likely to give rise to the impression that the constitutional issue is going to lie dormant or that it has lost its impact. And that would be a foolish impression.
For a time it will delay or dampen the debates that are the next necessary stage in the journey. Conversations about convergence of the public services on this small island; the convergence of health, energy, travel, training and infrastructure. Conversations about being British in Ireland and Irish in the United Kingdom, implications of a majority becoming a minority and vice versa
It is very hard to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t want to talk back and there is a growing suspicion among nationalists that Arlene closes down uncomfortable conversations with a snarl. She is in danger of being seen as a wolf in woman’s clothing.
Denis raps Arlene and Fionnuala tilts at Martin. Both fear that progress of a certain kind is about to be sacrificed for an even tighter DUP/SF carve- up concentrating on relatively uncontroversial “ bread and butter issues” that chime with the pragmatic approach of Arlene Foster more than nationalist ambitions. Is this such a bad thing? Surely even with bread and butter issues the sectarian litmus test will be applied in issues like health and welfare provision, job creation and infrastructure for the west? Is this not enough to be going on with?
A political veteran said to me the other day that a basic problem of interparty negotiations is the contrast between the Protestant and Catholic habits of mind . The Prods want to stick relentlessly to a point by point agenda and are suspicious if anyone diverts from it. The Catholics keep their eyes fixed on the vision thing and are impatient when mere details get in the way.
For Denis a test of power sharing is “conversations about convergence of services on this small island… and conversations about being British in Ireland and Irish in the United Kingdom, implications of a majority becoming a minority and vice versa.”
No doubt so. But just now? Convergence between north and south is hardly anyone’s financial priority and money talks very loudly.
Apart from concerns about DUP triumphalism on top, unexpressed in the articles may be fears of republican fragmentation that stirs the pot of violence more vigorously. There will be a lurking fear too that the SDLP in opposition will fall into terminal decline, leaving a highly undesirable SF near-monopoly further exposed to dissident-type breaking away at the edges.
Thus the desire to advance a broad-brush agenda appealing to liberal nationalists in case the GFA settlement is starting to fray. And thus the need for both sides to begin to consider of the implications of a Catholic majority. The crystallised fear is that setting nationalist terms for power sharing too low could threaten peace and stability in nationalist communities.
But this is a projection too heavy to load onto the first few weeks. Much of politics is about timing, and time will tell. An interpretation, that by cutting Arlene Foster slack to consolidate her leadership, McGuinness is selling the wider nationalist pass is highly questionable. It argues against all we have known about SF since at least 1997.
Neither writer acknowledges here that a different approach to government may be emerging. If both parties are feeling their way towards less reliance of mutual vetoes and trade-offs it’s surely to be welcomed. We are only a few weeks into the mandate for goodness sake.
If the boot was back on the other foot, the criticisms would be condemned as DUP exaggeration. The articles show that despite all the advances of the decades, nationalist insecurities still run deep, even in the most civilised of minds.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London