There’s something stereotypically Irish about a battle between two parties who are not competing for the same votes, were in one sense on the same side – i.e. the same government – and will end up more or less where we are after the Assembly election. Incisive though it is, Mick’s analysis defers the subject of finding a way through the standoff for another time.
In my own pitch to CNN, I noted the switch in morale between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Was it so long ago that the boot was on the other foot? Time and again the DUP and unionism generally were infuriated by the concessions (as they saw them) to Sinn Fein to persuade the IRA to disarm. They were the boycotters then. But those concessions have dried up after the sequence of resiling on the Maze peace centre and the end of the OTRs arrangement, and peaking with the Action Plan on ending paramilitary activity six months ago.
With 38 seats in the outgoing Assembly, the DUP’s relative advantage rests on its ability to move petitions of concern and its keenness to use them – 86 petitions since 2011 compared to Sinn Fein’s 29, according to the Detail’s analysis- whereas Sinn Fein falls short of the 30 seat threshold by two. Although the 30 seat threshold wrongly remains for a 90 seat Assembly, Nicholas Whyte reckons Sinn Fein are unlikely to reach it. So their leverage is limited unless they keep going for the nuclear option and the DUP are implacable.
If the balance of relative power remains unchanged, the temptation to play a zero sum game with it must be better resisted if the Assembly is ever to function better.
Political behaviour around the action plan for ending paramilitary activity is worth a second look. It originated in the Davison – McGuigan IRA killings and Peter Robinson “standing aside” to create the impression that the DUP were forcing Sinn Fein to take a tougher line against the remaining IRA presence, under threat of collapsing of the institutions. However Martin McGuinness obliged with every sign of willingness, so Robinson’s move looked redundant, no more than a gratuitous gesture of rubbing Sinn Fein’s nose in it to play to the DUP gallery. Sinn Fein’s willingness to endorse this package was a careful balance between a call for stronger police action against “organised crime” and the “reintegration of former paramilitaries into society,” which included lifting a ban on former paramilitaries’ eligibility for public sector jobs.
All this passed over with remarkably little fuss. The paramilitary measures were trailed in the Fresh Start package, alongside the welfare mitigation which covered a Sinn Fein climbdown over boycotting the budget. So it’s regrettable if true that Sinn Fein were starting to look weak to their natural supporters just at a point when they were being statesmanlike.
But now, by playing the “ stand aside “ card against Arlene Foster themselves, were Sinn Fein trying to get their own delayed action revenge?
This week, Gerry Adams’ repeated demands, for “respect,” an Irish Language Act and a Bill of Rights, look like remarkably thin gruel. Mairtin O Muilleoir’s little list is indeed longer – “corruption, show respect, share power and make peace.. LGPT rights, Irish Language Act a Bill of Rights.” Even so although vague in parts, it looks negotiable.
Yesterday’s Assembly sitting was surreal, not only for the point scoring but for the keenness to debate the issues in the first place right up to the end. It also dramatically showed the glaring need for the civil service to coordinate their own divided advice to rival ministers. The DUP did nothing for the chair’s impartiality by selecting Maurice Morrow as its nominating officer for the post of FM, while he later took over as third string chair. Deploying a petition of concern to block Sinn Fein’s no confidence motion in the Speaker was the ultimate abuse of the standards of impartiality required for dealing with the speakership that spoke volumes for those who were still listening.
Despite all the clamour on the airwaves and the torrent of written opinion, remarkably little is known about the dynamics inside each party. I’ve yet to read a convincing account of the reasons for the speed of the collapse in relations after all the spin about the united approach of Fresh Start. Journalists should do their best to exploit the campaign to find out more and not leave their role to cheer leading or refereeing the knockabout. Social media should be mined to allow wider public opinion to influence what threatens to be an otherwise sterile debate.