SF must address the weakness inherent in its unrequited desire for Executive unity

On Sunday Politics today, Fionnuala O’Connor once again correctly noted the growing sense within nationalism that the power relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein is increasingly vertical and not horizontal at Stormont, with the republican party very much playing the deputy’s role.

Martin McGuinness and other republicans have spoken publicly of their desire to build a strong and close relationship with the DUP, and he was at it again today on the programme.

But the response from the DUP could not be any clearer.

The DUP have their own agenda and they will pursue it regardless of the opinions or actions of their Executive partners in Sinn Fein. We heard this during the election campaign, when the DUP were only too happy to imply that any similarities between the manifesto commitments of the two parties were because Sinn Fein had followed the DUP agenda in these areas.

Peter Weir’s visit to an Irish medium school last week was a welcome step (as was Michelle O’Neill’s decision to lift the ban on gay men donating blood)  but it does little to soften the effect of the shuffle of blows delivered by the DUP’s Simon Hamilton and Arlene Foster respectively when they recently and very publicly ruled out an Irish Language Act and a nationalist Justice Minister prior to Sinn Fein endorsing a unionist for the position. For a nationalist electorate increasingly disillusioned with a delivery deficit in the post-peace process era, this can only have cemented that belief.

Sinn Fein will know that the DUP’s decision to block the building of a community centre for the largely nationalist community of Glenariff on account of the presence of a gate inscribed with the names of two 1920s republicans will only further anger republicans and feed the desire for a more assertive approach to countering the DUP’s actions. The silence of leading party figures on this issue since the news broke earlier in the week is quite revealing, implying that they believe acknowledging it may be construed as an acceptance of their weakness at a time when they would appear to want to sell a narrative that the DUP and SF shared a unity of purpose.

Ironically, it is worth remembering that the next time the Sinn Fein Ministers meet their DUP counterparts on the Executive, they will be forced to pass a statue of the founder of the Ulster Volunteer Force……

Only time will tell if the DUP warm to an approach which will ultimately only succeed if they are forced to give (and do so publicly) as well as take. Much of that may depend on the ability of the developing Opposition to present an alternative vision, both individually (at a distinct political party level) and collectively (as an alternative Executive in waiting.)

The early moves made in the life of the DUP/SF Fresh Start Executive show signs of small-step choreography, but a substantive commitment to want to make a two party power-sharing government work will require much more than picking low hanging fruit from the tree of positive publicity.