Joint disdain for accountability between the DUP and SF is where this crisis begins and ends.

The most remarkable thing about the latest collapse in the now almost ten year long political arrangement, accommodation, call it what you may, between the DUP and Sinn Fein is its untidiness. Many of us assumed that if or when it came it would be a controlled collapse.

For most of their time in joint power their greatest single boast was that it had lasted longer than the original, much looser UUP/SDLP arrangement which was constantly stop starting, due to a combative DUP taking advantage of the IRA’s recalcitrance towards giving up its weaponry.

In a sense, it had always been a bit of a dream team. The more pressure Sinn Fein put on David Trimble’s pro Agreement section of the UUP, the better Ian Paisley’s DUP did in the polls, eventually eclipsing their rivals in the ice cold election of November 2003.

No doubt Mr Paisley and Mr McGuinness had much to chuckle about as, together, they surveyed the wreckage of the two old democratic parties of the Troubles era.

They copper-fastened their joint rule by awarding the First Minister’s role to the largest party rather than the larger designation of either nationalist or unionist through reforms jointly wrought at St Andrews, making each a near permanent fixture as ‘tribal tribunes’ at the top of the NI political tree.

Of course, though they’ve had their troubles – most notably their disagreement over the devolution of policing and justice (finally resolved after the Iris Robinson crisis of early 2010) – decommissioning was off the table and everyone else was conveniently inside the tent.

Elections became processions back to power with the shifts in voter sentiment only changing microscopically over the first three Assembly elections. Policy hasn’t mattered as much as the ability to pile up unionist and nationalist votes in the corner of the largest party in each tribe.

Unwillingness to be made accountable to anyone outside the big two, led to a ‘so what’ attitude in politics. Ministers appearing before committees would, at times, lecture their questioners, secure that their larger mandates rendered them invulnerable to such questioning, or indeed any possibility of facing voter anger.

This joint disdain for accountability is where this crisis begins and ends.

When Conor Spackman’s Spotlight documentary brought to light NI’s Comptroller and Auditor General’s findings that the costs of the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) were spiralling out of control, all hell broke loose.

In fact both parties had known about the problem since January last year.

When the Finance minister was brought before the Stormont Finance committee this autumn he made it clear that he felt at time that major blame attached to the now departed Jonathan Bell rather than to the First Minister.

For a time, it looked as if Sinn Fein was prepared to do some heavy lifting for the sake of the government coalition which had so airily waved copies of its own Fresh Start agreement in the faces of the opposition parties in the assembly and in those of the onlooking media.

However the Official Opposition of Mike Nesbitt’s UUP and Colum Eastwood’s SDLP – just newly ensconced in May – was gifted a defensive performance from a First Minister often showing her as snappy, ill-tempered and surprisingly shaky on the detail of the story.

Her inability to answer questions directly and in detail about scheme – largely created by intermediate level civil servants – launched a dozen conspiracies. Several senior DUP staffers were found to have had family members who had registered with the scheme.

Still, everything held. On the 14th December the Executive, containing ministers of both parties, agreed that Mrs Foster should make a statement to the Assembly about her role in the scheme and to outline what was being done about curbing its runaway costs.

Sinn Fein appears to have decided to abandon government two days before that appearance, after Gerry Adams visited an unwell Martin McGuinness in Derry. McGuinness in turn wrote to the Speaker saying he had unilaterally withdrawn consent for Foster speak the next day.

The result was mayhem, with most of the Opposition parties following a Sinn Fein walk out from the Chamber; leaving Mrs Foster to read her explanatory statement into the record into a room half full with only her own MLAs.

At first, McGuinness advised Mrs Foster to step aside while a private inquiry took place. When she refused, it was clear Adams’s late intervention had painted his northern party into a corner, which Mrs Foster, no doubt stung by their late defection, refused: forcing McGuinness to resign.

The severe nature of McGuinness’s ill-health means that resigning his singular role as deputy First Minister likely signalled the end of his long political career. A career that has prospered upon his consummate ability to play a public role in unionist outreach for Sinn Fein.

Not only does his hasty departure leave a leadership vacuum within the party, it also leaves them very short of anyone with McGuinness’ experience and ability to reach out and be genuinely liked by his opponents within unionism, even within the DUP.

Just weeks ago the two First Ministers wrote: “We made promises to voters that we will keep – taking on the heavy responsibilities that come with elected office, governing in their best interests, tackling head-on the tough decisions.”

Not only have those promises come to nothing, but in outlining how thoroughly the DUP have thwarted Sinn Fein’s agenda over ten years, Mr Adams has made it clear that unless he can find a coalition partner who would willingly enact all his party’s agenda, all bets are off.

Since the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement included mutual vetoes from the get go, only a cautious and conservative approach was ever likely to produce anything either party could reasonably call delivery for their own communities.

Allowing the expectations of its political base to grow beyond its capacity to deliver has made a rod for Sinn Fein’s back. And its hasty departure has only allowed DUP representatives to argue on Irish airwaves that it was Sinn Fein – not they – who ran away from power sharing.

After ten years, its big ticket approach has resulted in no Irish Language Act, no Bill of Rights, a strategic drift in north south development, and no northern government at a time when Brexit poses serious economic and political problems for all the people of Ireland, south and north.

The old British and Irish government solution of putting the two most extreme parties together and expecting stable if not productive government has been tested to destruction.

At a time when the UK is preoccupied with Brexit, the US is bracing itself for Trump and the new politics of the Republic is struggling to get anything agreed never mind done, mollycoddling the pampered politicians of Northern Ireland is an indulgence none of them can afford.

The Blairs and Aherns, with their long term peace objectives and abundance of resources, are long gone. Northern Ireland will have to find ways to solve its own difficulties. As Naomi Long puts it: it needs people willing to be accountable as well as to accept (the trappings) of power.

This piece was written for the Irish Independent and was originally published here.


  • MainlandUlsterman

    Excellent piece, Mick, very well observed.

    I wonder if the calculation of SF was / is back to the old calculation: that making Northern Ireland work is not in their interests. Because the longer Northern Ireland gets by on the GFA settlement, September’s Ipsos MORI data on 18-34s suggests, the more the idea of a united Ireland wanes in relevance (it’s down to 19 per cent for that post-Troubles coming of age cohort, significantly lower than among the Troubles generations). So I wonder if SF has grabbed the opportunity of this heating scandal, plus Brexit and decided a bit of swashbuckling opportunism is called for – a chance to try and dig themselves out of their GFA hole? How committed are they to the GFA deal we all place our hopes in … we shall see.

    Having made the shift from ‘unionism must be defeated’ to ‘unionists must be our partners’, some of the language from SF (the ten year ‘litany’) sounds a lot like they’re going back to trying to defeat us. It never worked before and it won’t now. It will only divide and embitter people, I fear. But then that is much more promising territory for SF’s long term agenda than the dreaded satisfaction and calm.

  • The Irishman

    What nonsense

  • murdockp

    “Making Northern Ireland work is not in their interests”

    As one of the 45% who does not believe any of our political parties are fit to govern, I see a paradox facing both SF and DUP which the ANC in South Africa has also to face up to which is the electoral effect of improving educational attainment and lifting their core voters out of poverty will result in reduced votes for your party as people realise there is a better way and place their votes elsewhere.

    The paradox is that the more people you educate and improve their social status, the less likely they are to vote for extreme parties and move towards the centre therefore politically you have to ensure that your core voter remains where you need them which NI is uneducated and in poverty reliant on benefits. This is where the DUP are with their hard-core support and similarly SF. DUP seems to have gone out of their way to keep their people downtrodden.

    The most overused words used by NI politicians is “protecting the most vulnerable” What does this even mean in modern parlance. An ex UVF / IRA member who has had paramilitary training and has served time in prison does not sound too vulnerable to me, but these are the people receiving DLA and other benefits that keep them in the ‘non working’ lifestyles they have become accustomed too.

    SF and DUP have no electoral incentive to get these people into work or improve their employment opportunities.

    Which is why Northern Ireland is a basket case for both UK and ROI governments. We have an unaffordable benefits bill and a highly inefficient public sertor. We receive and spend 20% per capita more than 20% per capita in the UK and ROI and we wonder why no one wants us.

    I personally believe direct rule is what this place needs. We need to reduce the size of our bloated public service, encourage entrepreneurial activity and get people into work.

    Our current politicians have failed on each of the above measures and as Arlene showed this week, serve only themselves.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Let’s hope so.

  • mickfealty

    You really have to say why it’s nonsense here TI. There’s no darkened ‘stalls’ here, everyone is on the ‘stage’. So you have to sing for your supper/15 mins of fame!! 😉

  • NotNowJohnny

    Can you tell us what you mean by the term “trying to defeat us”? I’m particularly interested in who is included in the ‘us’ and what ‘defeat’ will look like? As someone who was raised in what is termed the “protestant community” and who continues to support the union (albeit less so since 23 June) and has never voted nationalist in my life, I’m not aware of anyone trying to defeat me. I certainly never looked at MMG over the last ten years and thought, now, there’s a man trying to defeat me, I’d better watch him.

    How is it that you think SF is trying to defeat you? And how come they aren’t trying to defeat me? And how do you propose that those whom SF is (supposedly) trying to defeat should to go about preventing this defeat happening? Do you think that the passing of an Irish Language Act or a Bill of Rights or equal marriage for everyone will somehow constitute defeat for you? Will these impact detrimentally on your life? And if, as you seem to say, they don’t defeat you, what will your victory look like?

  • eamoncorbett

    The GFA settlement doesn’t work because it guarantees that no matter what antics the classroom of sixteen year olds get up to , they cannot be punished because there is no supervision . The reason NI has not functioned politically in the last 100 years is because there has never been proper supervision , nothing to do with agendas or stuff like that .
    Partition guaranteed a Unionist majority for generations , the GFA copper fastened that situation with the principle of concent .
    When power sharing became mandatory both tribes quickly found out that they could behave in good old fashioned sectarian ways and get away with it , why, because nobody could censure them , the British government butted out , the Irish government didn’t have any authority in internal affairs .
    If Stormont returns without fundamental change to the supervisory roles of the 2 governments then we are doomed to the same old classroom Of sixteen year olds antics of before . I voted against the GFA not because I didn’t think it would bring peace but because it lacked the proper supervision needed to succeed, in other words the mistakes of the previous NI administrations were doomed to be repeated if the governments just sat back and let them at it . If NI is truly British and Irish then that is the way it must be overseen , left to the natives it will remain ungovernable.

  • Jag

    If Brexit Article 50 is triggered this year, then the negotiations will last at least 2 years, and possibly 10. We’ll have sorted out an Executive by then.

    You seem convinced Mick that MMG’s illness is the direct catalyst for the collapse of the Executive. Don’t think that’s right because Arlene could have avoided it all if she had heeded the calls to stand aside, calls from all parties, and the increasingly vociferous calls from SF between 30th Dec and 8th Jan.

    There’ll be an election; the DUP will be decimated with votes mostly flowing to the UUP. By the start of March, there might well be a UUP/SDLP/SF government. At least we’d get to the bottom of the RHI scandal. It’s not Armageddon.

  • hotdogx

    The union is a load of nonsense and more and more are seeing it, and there will be more again when Brexit decimates this place.

  • eamoncorbett

    Direct Tory rule in virtual perpetuity? How on earth could that be good for NI
    A stridently supervised Stormont would be better than that.

  • Madra Uisce

    Can you tell us what you mean by the term “trying to defeat us”?

    Im guessing MU means the Alliance party, he is after all one of their biggest supporters.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    You obviously missed the most recent lucid talk poll in December whic put support for Irish Unity at 44%. The highest in living memory and part of a pattern going in that direction.

    Unionism with Brexit, Financial Scandals and brass neck arrogance has done more for Irish unity than 800 yrs of fighting.

  • El Daddy

    Hi Anthony, just wondering what you think about the Ipsos Mori results themselves

    EDIT: My bad, wrong link there for a second.

    Pretty stark differences. Lucid Talk is more recent, but to have have such a difference over 4 months seems a bit much.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    Yes its been a big leap so of course one needs to be cautious. However, lucd talk have been tracking for quite some time. The mori poll in August found 22% in favour. The lucd talk poll at the of september found 30% in favour, now apparently we are at 44%. Brexit is sinking in, and the RHI scandal has also focused minds. It looks like Arlene might be the greatest gift Unionism could ever have given to nationalism.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    44 per cent – I don’t think so, but can you send me the link and I’ll try and clear it up for you tomorrow.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The numbers aren’t there for you unfortunately. But who knows, you might get up to 40 per cent at some stage. At the moment though, getting 30 per cent is at the upper end.

  • NotNowJohnny

    I’m quite sure MU will clarify this shortly.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    This is fascinating – nationalist poster after nationalist poster on here is advocating tearing up the Good Friday Agreement. This is kind of what I was warning people about within a year of the thing being signed: that more than a few nationalists seemed to very quickly build up an imaginary version of what the agreement. The danger with that has been, they set themselves up for massive disappointment when the fantasy is exposed. And here we are. I would urge people to go back and read the bloody thing – it was a good agreement and it was fair. Can we go back to that historic deal please?

  • mickfealty

    In the piece above? Or from a previous post?

  • Anthony O’Shea
  • MainlandUlsterman

    That’s a lot of questions. Will get to it tomorrow. But in short SF’s tactic has been to push an Irish good, Brits bad narrative which seeks to elide and sideline unionist concerns. I also have been vocal in supporting an Irish language act, gay marriage, the right to abortion and a raft of other progressive measures. But don’t mistake SF for progressives, they are regressive ethnic chauvinists who foster division and seek, to put it bluntly, an ethnic victory for Irish Catholics over Ulster Protestants. If you take them at their liberal, progressive, butter wouldn’t melt self-image, then you might see it differently but dare I suggest their self image is a tad dishonest?

  • file

    Mick, running away from powersharing is no shame because … there was no powersharing. As the Irish Times editorial outlined, Sinn Féin were completely justifies in pulling the plug on the sham(e) on the hill. And they should not go back to it.

  • johnny lately

    Thats the one thing unionists are afraid about MU. They know Nationalism only has to be lucky once, Unionism always has to be lucky and as long as the DUP stay in power and stick with their anti Irish agenda while feathering their own nests, it wouldn’t be too much of a leap of faith to say that lucky day will be coming soon.

  • El Daddy

    What goes up just as quickly could go down, that’s all I’m thinking about.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    That looks really odd and out of step with a succession of Ipsos MORI polls and Life and Times surveys on the border issue. All comes down to sampling assumptions which is a complex business but Ipsos MORI is pretty much gold standard in the industry. Certainly the figures differ vastly. Overall figure for Utd Ireland in Ipsos MORI data was 22 per cent. The distinction could be that LT question picks up theoretical future support, the Ipsos MORI question is more specific about what you want now. Much much fewer people want a Utd Ireland if it’s any time soon.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    It’s very clear from the context I’m referring to us unionists. And yes I am both a (note the small ‘u’) unionist and a current Alliance supporter, though I’ve never claimed to be a massive one and switched only recently from Labour. If you think favouring Alliance while being pro-Union is a contradiction, I can only worry for you and direct you to the history of the Alliance Party …

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Let’s hope we can get them out

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Agree with much of your diagnosis but not the cure. Direct Rule isn’t what is needed, a revived centre ground is.

  • I think it’s more to do with the way the question was asked; had Lucid Talk done a simple binary question, asking for a straight up yes or no to Irish unity like they did in September rather than the aligning of 4 specific scenarios in preference, I think it would’ve been a different outcome.

    Because, if we’re to take this poll as gospel, then there’s been a 13% increase in support for a united Ireland since Lucid Talk’s September poll. I want to see a surge in support for Irish unity as much as anybody else, but something just doesn’t seem right about that particularly large spike.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    Well 44% of the population come from a traditionally nationalist background and Arlene foster is arguably the most disliked Unionist Leader amongst that cohort so, its not that unblievable.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    The lucid talk poll is a tracker and it has tracked growing support for Irish Unity for some time. They were also the only polling company who predicted the NI brexit poll and last GE poll bang on. Regardless, there is without doubt serious momentum behind Irish Unity.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    Yes of course thats always the way.

  • Lionel Hutz

    I personally don’t think there’s much I would change about the Good Friday Agreement although I think nationalist’s should be more open to tweaking it from time to time.

    The problem isn’t the structures as much as it is the people in charge. To take the petition of concern for example. People are frustated because the DUP abuse it. But if the PoC wasn’t there I’d have zero confidence that the DUP and Unionists more generally would refrain from abusing majority rule.

  • Lionel Hutz

    It’s amazing how that hasn’t made the newspapers. The Belfast telegraph usually parade every lucid talk poll. Interesting

  • Sandman

    It’s all just a torturous contrivance to give meaning to McGuinness’s departure – that’s what you wrote elsewhere.

  • mickfealty

    I thought you’d walked off the park SM? Let’s remind ourselves that with time taken out for holidays, this Fresh Start administration has been in office for a grand total of just five months? I’d say I was not far off the mark.

  • mickfealty

    And how do you think having a punch up with your interlocutors in the next round of talks helps in any way?

    The DUP has wiped SF’s eye for ten years. Now, they don’t have Robbo any more (and that already shows in this crisis I think) but unless there’s a reverse 2003 I don’t see how suddenly that changes.

    The gains to be made are in the direction of voluntary coalition, and expanding investigation of the past to include the crimes of former anti state actors.

  • mickfealty

    I clipped that Givan/O Muilleoir prize fight on The View last night. It was a full 23 minutes long, and the only thing covered. Way to go, making the opposition parties disappear BBC.

    Mission accomplished!

  • mickfealty

    What’s the base of their sample these days? I know Bill is trying to grow it on the lines of the YouGov model.

  • Sandman

    Censorship. Nice one. Adios.

  • NotNowJohnny

    It’s probably best if I wait until you respond to my previous post before getting into this.

  • file

    I don’t want there to be any next round of negotiations with people who are completely unreasonable and bigoted. It is impossible to work with the DUP. Northern Ireland is a failed state and the two governments who started the problem should be left alone to fix it. Either that or SF goes into opposition and joins up with Jim Allister to bring the whole place down.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    MU, I’m very far from being a fan of SF, but perhaps you should get out and meet more of them, and get over this odd hallucination of a body of homogenious clones!

    “But don’t mistake SF for progressives, they are regressive ethnic chauvinists who foster division and seek, to put it bluntly, an ethnic victory for Irish Catholics over Ulster Protestants.”

    While my own rather “polite Anglo” accent certainly gets me summarily stubbed at times by a few SF mlas, I find quite a few others unquestionably open minded and genuinely concerned to make the concept of a single community here work for us all, not just one camp. Your blanket characterisation would really need a lot of careful unpacking and qualification, and seemingly mirrors that old saw that the UUP are all dinosaurs, while the ignoring the serious qualification which such examples as Danny Kinahan and Jeff Dudgeon offer to counter this. Even some of the DUP, from my own direct experience are not entirely beyond possible rescue.

    The question here is, how many members of SF have you actually met and engaged with to form your opinions? Or is this an example of that all too prevelent trope of NI politics, damning people on superficial media perceptions, “sight unseen”………….

  • Oggins

    Excellent piece Mick

  • Jag

    “Sinn Fein appears to have decided to abandon government two days before that appearance, after Gerry Adams visited an unwell Martin McGuinness in Derry.”

    The above post Mick.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Just judging them by what they’ve said and done politically, I’m sure many of them are charming and harmless in person and have multiple sides like we all do. I’m not suggesting otherwise. But I regard them as like Klansmen or AWB members; as someone posted recently, being party to a record of horrific atrocities doesn’t preclude you from being a family person who writes poetry. People are complex. Murder though is quite simply wrong and always was.

    With a party that, well into my adulthood, was actively supporting the IRA’s right to murder Republicanism’s political opponents, it is hard (as one of those opponents myself) to get past that basic starting point with them. They still refuse to disown the IRA or its murder campaign. That is their position. If it stops being their position, and they get serious about starting to give redress to the families of the Republican Movement’s many victims, I will reassess my attitude to them.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    PoC though isn’t the sole barrier to majority rule – the structure of the GFA makes it impossible anyway.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Momentum towards what sort of percentage vote though? What would be your prediction?

  • Lionel Hutz

    Ill end up ranting about that.

    Yeah there’s nothing the media want more than a shouting match between Sinn Fein and DUP. If there’s anything that’s going to perpetuate this ongoing mess it’s that attitude places “same old same old” v “same old same old” as the two choices for the voter.

    For six months the media placed a single rep from SF or DUP to speak for the executive up against the opposition parties since the last election. Works for the media when SF and the DUP say it will.

    And then we wonder why there’s a sense of fatalism about the whole thing. In many a country, people would relish an election to give a bloody nose to the government. But here, the odd vox pop shows people thinking it doesn’t matter as we will get the same thing after the election.

    Since the new year, I’ve also noted that all BBC radio programs start off with the DUP/SF fight followed by commentators from the rest. Like they are thereally for the post fight analysis.

  • Reader

    Anthony O’Shea: The highest in living memory and part of a pattern going in that direction.
    The questions are different from those ever asked before – and somewhat confusing. How can you say that the answers are part of a pattern?

  • Reader

    johnny lately: They know Nationalism only has to be lucky once,…
    A referendum result won’t be down to luck. But that was a classy wee hat tip there to would-be political assassins. Was it deliberate?

  • Anthony O’Shea

    I have no idea, two years from now after the brexit shenanigans and there is a detailed plan presented with the probability of significant protections for British identity, the north remaining semi autonomous keeping the assembly, the union flag and irish flag jointly legal in that part, British government involvement in the affairs of the north, a gauranteed unionist presence at cabinet, etc etc. It really depends on how broad an agreement can favour the British Unuonist identity on the Island. I would hope a UI could pass with a healthy 55 to 60 percent win.

  • mickfealty

    I’m probably being thick, but I don’t follow?

  • Anthony O’Shea

    They are far from confusing and very much phrased in line with the current realities.

  • mickfealty

    Our door is *always* open SM. You know that.

  • mickfealty

    That’s exactly where they should go. It would be consistent with their positioning.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Haha, OK … we shall see. Remember this was all supposed to have happened by 2000, then 2016 … we’ve been living with this parallel universe of “progress towards a united Ireland” for decades without the polls actually shifting to anything like close to support for it. And until they do, there won’t even be a referendum let alone a win for the Leavers.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Well, MU, political murder has not been a stranger to those supporting the Union either. Over and above the recent culpability of Loyalism, even the most conventional shade of Unionism is not without blood on its hands. I have perfectly respectable family and friends whose families have supported the UUP for several generations, while the political militia of the regime and the party protected men who had engaged in sectarian atrocity. This is entirely compatable with that IRA response which developed symbiotically out of such a reckless example. I know you have talked about the scale of our more recent violence somehow cancelling out such Unionist culpability, but really, if we are concerned with issues of constitutionalism vs recourse to violence, few parties engaged in politics here over the past century and a half have clean hands as such.

    The reality is that Unionism and Republicanism are going to have to work together politically if we are ever to move forward to a florishing community. I am appalled by the waste which Unionism and its opponents have made of our communities politics for over a century, with their mutual recourse to violence, but as long as we are all attempting to live in one space, some form of mutual respect either develops in order to find some way of making things work or the political vacuum simply increases. This constant demand of Unionists that somehow SF should simply go away “on demand” reminds me of Cliff Lawton in “The Thick of IT” episode, “Spinners and Losers” from a decade ago:

    “Cliff Lawton: I will never ever forgive him for what he did to me.

    Jamie: Jesus, this isn’t Eastenders! This is politics! We’re all in the same playing pit, Cliff, there’s no clean hands.”

    You personally “regard them as like Klansmen or AWB members”, certainly, but until the British and Irish governments start to agree with you we are where we are, and these are the cards the voters are dealing us alongside the DUPs “standing order” support. I’d want a better hand myself, but until it is dealt you have to look at how things may be made to work at all, like the old NI Labour Party or Irish Nationalist party in the north under the even less promicing stage set of partition and decades of one party rule.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    OK, on your many questions then:
    “Can you tell us what you mean by the term “trying to defeat us”? I’m particularly interested in who is included in the ‘us’ and what ‘defeat’ will look like?”
    As I said in my post last night, SF has not really been about reaching any kind of realistic readjustment of its positions in regard to Troubles legacy matters in particular that might help bridge the inter-community divisions. Its approach to unionism has been characterised by an “Irish good, Brits bad” narrative which seeks to misrepresent unionist people, blame us for their decision to launch the “armed struggle” and which elides and sidelines unionist concerns. Despite paying lip service to parity of esteem, they regularly seek to portray British people and culture in N Ireland as regressive and sectarian through and through. It’s a kind of ethnic stereotyping that takes what the worst members of the tribe do as typical or emblematic of the whole. They have done that again and again and again, quite deliberately, knowing they gain the more Catholics form a negative view of Protestants. They choose to ignore the many Protestants and unionists who don’t fit the negative stereotype and the many who peacefully and normally go about harmless everyday lives. That’s not to ignore the aggressive unionists and loyalists who are there, I’m their opponent too, but SF seek to portray wider Protestant and unionist life as if that was all, or even mainly, what it consisted of. They also elide their own role in provoking a good deal of the ill-feeling of which they complain. They attack and attack and then blame their targets for acting defensive. Sorry, but I am deeply unimpressed by all that, as I am with the often over-defensive, reactionary attitudes of some in the DUP.

    “How is it that you think SF is trying to defeat you? And how come they aren’t trying to defeat me?”
    Their game is really, as mentioned, to package up P/U/L people in a negative ethnic stereotype, so that their nationalist constituency finds SF’s aggression towards us reasonable and continues to support it. I think they see the denigration of British people and culture in NI as necessary for building support for a united Ireland. The worse we are perceived, they surmise, the more C/N/R voters will want to reject accommodation with us and seek victory over us. The ultimate victory they want is of course the united Ireland goal. You can read the sneering tone on here from Republican posters who think their day is coming. They are not seeing this in terms of a bright future for all the people of NI, not all – they see it as the ultimate defeat of unionists, who will then have to put up and shut up. Some expect and wish for a big exodus; others just want to see unionist people, whom they have led themselves to blame for all NI’s difficulties, humiliated and defeated. For a lot of Republicans, it’s basically a revenge mission for the slights and wrong of the past, real and imagined. It will be dressed up in butter-wouldn’t-melt language, which they are adept at. But the reality beneath it is a belief they are engaged in a grim struggle for ethnic dominance, which they want to win. British identity in Ireland is to be tolerated as a quaint relic that will wither on the vine.

    “And how do you propose that those whom SF is (supposedly) trying to defeat should to go about preventing this defeat happening?”
    I think what I’m doing now is part of it – and generally continuing to call out what they are doing. There is a battle for the hearts and minds of generations coming through, and we who don’t believe in an ethnic victory for either tribe being any kind of future must be vocal and persuasive in making that case. Championing the politics of the centre, for me, is key to that – and making sure centrists from both communities support each other and build a more positive model of where society should be going and what attitude to have towards the other tribe – fairly rejecting the extremists on the other side is not to be dismissed as a bad thing, it should be encouraged and supported. I will personally back any nationalist who rejects Loyalist terror apologism on the unionist side and will take their side against Loyalist violence. I will also reject any attempts to portray peaceful and centrist unionists or nationalists, who reject extremism, violence and ethnic stereotyping, as no better than those who do indulge in those things. There is a big difference, and grasping that difference is the key to better future cross-community relations.

    “Do you think that the passing of an Irish Language Act or a Bill of Rights or equal marriage for everyone will somehow constitute defeat for you?”
    No, I support all those things.

    “Will these impact detrimentally on your life?”
    Not in the least.

    “And if, as you seem to say, they don’t defeat you, what will your victory look like?”
    I don’t have a vision for a ‘victory’ over people and think that’s the wrong way to look at it. But I have a medium term and long term view of what not being defeated looks like. Medium term, we see a growth in centrist parties in the broader sense: UUP, Alliance, Greens, Labour (dreaming there perhaps!), SDLP, with the DUP and SF votes gradually reducing. Then a coalition of the centre. Longer term, new parties spring up in the growing centre space; community-specific parties become marginal and associated with the past; and politics is run in the middle ground around left vs right ideas, or future ideas beyond left/right divisions. People’s right to their identities – and respect for other identities as genuinely of equal value – will be taken for granted. Only irrelevant dunderheads will talk at all about there being some hierarchy of Irish over British or vice versa. And there will be a healthy sense of shared Northern Irishness which all but the knuckle-dragging brigade will pick up in school (with more and more mixed schools), much as racism in racially mixed parts of mainland Britain was fatally undermined by kids of all races growing up and going to school together.

    Sorry that’s long, but does that answer your questions?

  • The first page of that poll lays out their methodology, they’ve got some 5,000 members on their opinion poll panel.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Yes and I respect the mandate SF has, that’s the basis they’ve been in government and why we have to find ways of dealing with them. On current voting, it looks like they probably have to be part of the next coalition. But I think it’s fine for us to hold our noses while doing so, given who they are. I don’t expect SDLP people to warm to the DUP either. It’s about making things work despite those things we’ll probably always have against each other. I worry they aren’t really committed to making N Ireland work and they will keep collapsing things when they don’t get their way. All we can do is keep going and make it clear that if they are throwing away Good Friday, they are on their own. I’d hope the SDLP in that instance would be able to step to the plate and nationalist voters would recognise the SDLP as the more constructive party to vote for.

  • file

    Indeed. A rebel’s rightful place is in opposition, not in the establishment. It is also much easier and less hypocritical to work towards the dismantling of Northern Ireland if you are not part of the structures you want to dismantle.

  • mickfealty

    Can’t see how that works. Refusal of the largest party to accept FM or dFM and the arrangement will just falls again. You either keep them collapsed or you go back in. Can’t see any other option. Can you?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you, MU, fine reply! I’d certainly like to see the centre genuinely strengthen up, but for now we’re coping with a ten year slow motion falling apart, although our current rather dramatic “tomato/wall” scenario may simply default to the old dishonest stasis after all the smoke and mirrors.

    But yes, the further away from the violence of both camps the happier I feel myself. Ah, if only we’d had a boring old Home Rule solution in 1914, with that “unionist” quarter of an all Ireland electorate co-operating in a Dublin Dominion parliament and a possible century of undramatic but reasonable stability!!!

  • Katyusha

    I worry they aren’t really committed to making N Ireland work and they will keep collapsing things when they don’t get their way.

    That’s really ironic MU, given that political unionism has gained a reputation for collapsing the institutions at the slightest provocation, and shown little concern at the prospect of returning to direct rule; whereas SF are perceived as having rolled over to the DUP in their desperate attempts to keep the institutions up and running.

    It’s hard also to see how the SDLP is more constructive. Seems to me like exactly the opposite is true. You do realise Eastwood is calling for joint authority?

  • Anthony O’Shea

    Those predictions were always unrealistic nonsense. We just have to keep scratching away at it and hopefully we will get there eventually. For now its moving in the right direction at least.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    It the press are scared to print something, you know you’re on to a winner 🙂

  • file

    Sort of … I read the legislation, and it says that the second largest party has to nominate the deputy First Minister. If that person does not take up the nomination, he process must be run again. It does not, however, stipulate that the process must be run again by the same party. So maybe the second biggest nationalist party can then nominate a deputy First Minister. The legislation is not clear and thus open to interpretation.

  • mickfealty

    Aye, maybe. Maybe not.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Yes he’s been patchy. But compared to the Shinners he’s like Martin Luther King.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Somehow I don’t think that would have happened under Home Rule 🙂

  • northstar

    Mick still not quite opening his eyes and ears in the Ghetto. For months now this has been coming & glad to say many of us on Twitter helped get the message thru to SF.
    Its all over & there will be radical Constitutional change.

  • ScottishClive22

    Very good piece – I have always thought the large proportion of guarenteed votes makes politicans here lazy and indifferent to actually doing anything.

  • ScottishClive22

    I though the numbers games was about the amount of offspring from the two communities that would eventually lead to a RC majority, which is assumed to be nationalistic.

    Also maybe MMG ill health pushed their hand and SF thought if he is going to go lets throw the board up in the air and see where the pieces land…

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Yes I think that’s what they seem to be doing – they feel they have nothing to lose and they are bored of compromise. They haven’t a great long record of patience with democracy, I think they think it’s a bit bourgeois.

  • mickfealty

    The SDLP would be mad to let SF off this one. Whatever happens to them in this election.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Serious question, exactly why? Quite a few people, including prominent members of the UUC (Check Fetherstonhaugh’s letter to the Cork Examiner) believed that if tensions were coled in 1913/14 Home Rule would have easily worked smoothly with the concessions discussed for northern sensibilities. It is always a mistake to draw on ones experience of a century of something else happening as some sort of confirmation that what happened was either desirable or inevitable. It is always most important to get into the way people were thinking at a particular moment in time, and to avoid any temtation to generalise broadly.

    Redmond, and other Nationalists believed that the IPP would inevitably split into seperate parties with Liberal and Conservative agendas, even perhaps several socialist parties, in the wake of Home rule and in this situation, the ex-Unionist block of one quarter of the population would have had considerable weight in any coallision. Many Protestant nationalists suggseted the example of the IPPs own weight at Westminster in previous years could offer a model as to exactly why Unionism should have been able to punch well above its weight (and incidently ensure the strength of secularism in the new Irish state.

    I sometimes wonder at the sanity of some of my fellow citizens, preferring a century of conflict enforced by their “Ulsteria”, apparently hell bent on exemplifying Hegel’s “Herrschaft und Knechtschaft dialectic”:–slave_dialectic:

  • Nevin

    “Joint disdain for accountability between the DUP and SF is where this crisis begins and ends.”

    Mick, I drew attention to governance problems back in 2012. They applied to all parties with Ministers and they were not addressed.

    The Northern Ireland Audit Office was invited to investigate aspects of the Rathlin Ferry contract back in 2008; it failed to do so and an individual stood to lose over £100,000, a much greater loss than a taxpayer as a consequence of the RHI debacle.

  • NotNowJohnny

    First, thanks for the substantive response and for your efforts in seeking to address the various questions. Apologies for the delay in responding but there were a number of points to respond on.

    I think I should start with a point of agreement; In relation to your point about “victory over people” and “that being the wrong way to look at it”, I agree fully, and indeed it was your reference to the word ‘defeat’ in your first post that drew my attention to it and made me uncomfortable. I think it is unhelpful at best (and potentially dangerous) to use terminology such as “defeat” and “victory” in respect of Northern Ireland politics and all this recent talk by Foster of “defending unionism” falls into the same category. It is not a conflict we are engaged in, military or otherwise, and having a First Minister engaging in such talk makes her unfit for that office in my view. The role of the office of First Minister is not to defend unionism any more than the office of Deputy First Minister is to defend republicanism.

    I have to say that I just don’t see SF “as seeking an ethnic victory (the use of those words again) for Irish Catholics over Ulster Protestants” nor do I, as someone from what would be deemed ‘a Protestant community background’ recognise much of what you have written regarding SF. I would certainly be interested in seeing more in the way of evidence to support the claims. In fact iI happen to believe the direct opposite in relation to your claim that SF sees “the denigration of British people and culture in NI as necessary for building support for a united Ireland”. I think the evidence shows that SF now realises that in order to build support for a UI they need to reach out to unionists and I think that MMG has done a good job in relation to that over the last decade.

    Again I think that a term such as “ethnic victory” is dangerous language not least as one could be forgiven for thinking the claim is about ethnic cleansing. I think it is worth pointing out that Sinn Fein abandoned its military conflict a long time ago and it simply doesn’t have the political or legislative tools to achieve the type of ‘ethnic victory’ you seem to be referring to. It is worth noting that the it is the DUP which has used the political tool of the POC to block both an Irish language act and equal marriage. One wonders therefore if is the DUP we should be more worried about in terms of equality. I do wonder therefore if these concerns about SF are based on reality or could they merely be something embedded deep within the unionist mind-set? I recall full well at the time of the parades dispute, my neighbour in a fit of pique shouting, “they’re stopping ‘us’ walking down our roads; they’ll be wanting to stop ‘us’ going to our church next” to which I really wanted to respond by saying actually ‘they’ won’t be doing anything of the sort but, hey, don’t let reality get in the way of the Sinn Fein bogeyman.

    I’m also not sure it is fair to say either that SF only plays lip service to parity of esteem. It is clear MMG went the second mile in meeting HM the Queen and the Prince of Wales and in attending the Somme commemorations while others such as Carál Ní Chuilín attending Windsor Park or Alex Maskey flying the Union Flag in his Belfast Lord Mayor’s office (along with the Irish tricolour) seem to me to amount to much more than lip service. I also think that SF (and its electoral base) now extends much more widely than what you might refer to as promoting an Irish identity over a British one; indeed part of the recent criticism of SF has been its reluctance to press for parity of esteem for the Irish identify. It appears to me that SF is more focussed on the promotion of the wider equality agenda (e.g. LGBT rights etc) which ironically the DUP has also been opposed to.

    As regards your statement ‘the ultimate victory they want is of course the united Ireland goal’, I think it is important to point out that this is a quite legitimate goal facilitated of course by UK legislation. And if this does ever happen (and there’s no sign of it yet) it will only be at the behest of a majority of people in Northern Ireland voting for it. (I do think some unionists may have a fundamental misunderstanding of the GFA.) I do however share with you a desire in the growth of centre ground parties in Northern Ireland and will be doing my bit in any forthcoming election. I think having a preference for a centrist governed Northern Ireland within the UK in line with the GFA is quite a legitimate ambition but this doesn’t mean that an ambition for a UI isn’t equally legitimate.

  • Dreary Steeple

    Might be a clone of Al Gore’s hockey stick then.

  • Dreary Steeple

    Actually AF is becoming the most disliked leader for both tribes, period.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    All I can say is, you have a very benign view of SF, which it seems to me takes their projection of how they want people to see them at face value.

    There’s one simple test of their ‘outreach’ – are they prepared to disown the PIRA? If they are serious about being a party for all, they have a choice to make – they can be on the side of British people in NI or they can be on the side of those who killed us, but not both. I think this may be a big part of why its self-image as non-sectarian crusaders for justice doesn’t wash with the vast majority of non-nationalists.

    I do hope they can move on, but if they can’t they should really stand aside and let another party without all the baggage lead nationalism.

  • Kenneth Armstrong

    It is clear that their main goal is to cause chaos and dis-unity. The RHI scandal could be resolved as only a small amount has so far been spent.

  • HopefulPessimist

    I’m no fan or supporter of SF but seriously Mick most of this is invention and your imagination of what Gerry said to Martin. Seems it all had nothing to do with Arlene, her attitude or the content of her speech. Please try to find some balance.

  • NotNowJohnny

    Snn Fein is not gong to disown the IRA and neither is it going to stand aside. SinnFein participates in government on the basis of its electoral mandate, most of which either has no desire for it to disown the IRA or isn’t in the least bothered whether it does or doesn’t. I’m afraid the days when unionism could set pre-conditions for SFs participation in Govrnment are gone. Indeed we are now at the stage where SF is setting conditions for the DUPs participation in government. The DUPs commitment to ‘not an inch’ politics has ensured this is the case.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    What do you think should be their position on the IRA?

  • NotNowJohnny

    Far be it from me to determine SFs position on the IRA. What is clear is that they can’t and won’t disown it. And the fact that they haven’t hasn’t been an impediment to power sharing before so I can’t see why it should be now. As for me, I think their position on the IRA is irrelevant now.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Why can’t they disown the IRA though?

    We have to have power-sharing with them, you’re right, because they get enough votes to make that a necessity. It doesn’t mean they’re right not to disown the IRA.

    I’d suggest SF’s views on the IRA campaign so many of us lived through and were affected by are far from irrelevant today. It speaks to what kind of people they are and what values they hold. Many people are still affected by bereavement or trauma from that time, that has not stopped. Resentment over what happened in the Troubles is that big part of the NI iceberg below the surface, on both sides. It can’t be healthy to have a party that still seeks to justify the murders of that era and cast those responsible as heroes. And they wonder why they are so loathed. Really, this is not rocket science.

  • NotNowJohnny

    I think I should point out first that no party has to power share with SF. The opposition benches are open to all. As to why SF can’t disown the Provos, I would guess that’s it’s for much the same reason why FF and FG can’t disown the old IRA and why the Ulster Unionists don’t disown the B Specials.

    Although I too lived through the entire campaign, for me I don’t think it is healthy to keep focussing on events of 25+ years ago. I heard Nelson McCausland talking about the IRA yesterday as if it was relevant to the upcoming election. I think it is worth pointing out that on hearing of MMGs withdrawal from active politics, it is clear that he as a former commander in the IRA is certainly not loathed by many in ‘the Protestant community’. People decide for themselves whether to loathe. I choose not to.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Hmm, not sure you’re right to say he’s not loathed by many Protestants. I think there is recognition he moved away from murder. But he never disowned it or admitted it was wrong so I think unionist feeling about him reflects that. It’s really important I think not to lower our standards and accept actions like his as somehow just one of those things. He did appalling, shocking things to people, repeatedly over many years. Many of them are not here today to comment on the glittering career of the man who killed them.

  • NotNowJohnny

    It’s not only his moving away from murder that is recognised. It’s his efforts at reconciliation and the his willingness to make peace with his enemies that many admire. Of course many unionists don’t want to be reconciled. And they need an excuse not to. The troubles provides that. What would it take from SF for you to come to a position where you would wish to be reconciled with them?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The decent things to do would be:
    – cut off the IRA and take the same approach to them as other parties do
    – offer compensation to IRA victims out of SF funds. They have massive funds which belong to their surviving victims and their families.
    – reveal the locations of the various body parts and corpses they have buried
    – apologise to all their victims and their families
    – give victims and their families all the information they have about the murder of their loved one.

    Ideally, they should really wind down the party and withdraw it from the political arena, since it is inappropriate for a party with such a record to be in public life and true remorse would bring a recognition of that. Former SF members with no past paramilitary involvement could then start a new Republican party to replace SF, which could then expect respect from the rest of society. Anyone with a paramilitary past should withdraw from public life and leave politics for those without terrorist records.

    I apply all this to the PUP too by the way, and if there are any other unionist or nationalist politicians with terrorist pasts, it applies to them too.

    Of course very little of this will happen, because the world is not a fair place. I’m just saying, it should. And that should be our starting point with SF – not accepting the sh** they offer us just because “that’s just how it is” but seeking something better, asking for what we – and by we I mean all of us, not just unionists – have a right to expect as human beings.

  • NotNowJohnny

    I presume you’re up for winding down FF and FG too given their foundations. And why stop there. Why not wind up the Tory party given its record in Ireland and the colonies? SF is a very different organisation than it was in the 1980s. There was a conflict but it’s over. Nearly twenty five years now. Just as the Second World War is over and I’ve no particular gripe with the Germans anymore. Conflicts come and go in all parts of the world. There’s nothing particularly unique about here. Whatever you think about SF they have a very large mandate and their voters people don’t want them wound down. These people want them to represent them in government. And these people have the right to choose who represents them and if unionist don’t like their choice that is just too bad. They still have the right to be in government. It’s all about parity of esteem now. And I think that’s a good thing.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    They have a right to be in government due to their vote. But for the good of wider society I would urge them to do the right thing by the people they have damaged.