In the early phases of the Assembly, Sinn Fein had the perfect bargaining chip of the arms decommissioning agenda, turning it on or off at will. Tony Blair spelt it out brutally for SDLP leader Mark Durkan to read across to David Trimble: “ The problem with you guys is you haven’t got guns.”
Today most of the guns have gone and with them much of Sinn Fein’s tactical advantage. As they are all too aware, their emphasis on equality has been sounding strained of late. Once upon a time Sinn Fein appeared to carry all before them. Unionism generally was flat footed. But thanks to 10 more seats and as the DUP would see it, a more assertive stance, the DUP has become more equal than they are and – allowing for rhetorical exaggeration – perilously close to restoring unionist majority rule, or so Sinn Fein keep telling us. According to one theory DUP assertiveness has unbalanced the delicate power sharing relationship. According to another, the balance has been rectified and Sinn Fein just can’t take it. Where are the public in all this? It’s a funny old game, Northern Ireland politics, but the players don’t seem sick of it yet.
Sinn Fein have seized the moment afforded by the RHI fiasco to try to redress the balance. I look forward to those who attended the event to confirm how it reads; that their manifesto was launched with the show of moral authority combined with playing the victim that so sets their critics’ teeth on edge. I bet it was good for supporters’ morale. It really is quite impressive.
But behind the swagger much has changed. The blocking mechanism of petitions of concern which they defend for their own protection even as they complain about DUP abuse, is no substitute for guns under the table. And the old pan- nationalist front vanished ages ago, as Sinn Fein competes aggressively for a share of power in the south.
This couldn’t have been clearer in the Dail. The fallout of the McCabe affair currently overshadows everything just now, as it seems to be leading to the end Enda Kenny as taoiseach. Even so the two main parties united against Sinn Fein’s motion of no confidence , with Micheal Martin giving qualified support to Enda Kenny at bay:
Mr Kenny said in the Dáil on Wednesday night that Sinn Féin were not content with collapsing the powersharing arrangements in the North and now wanted to cause similar chaos down here.
“By their actions, Sinn Féin have deprived the people of Northern Ireland of proper political representation at this crucial time in the Brexit process and I am not going to let them do the same in this State.’’
Mr Martin also claimed Sinn Féin was acting in its own political interests.
When Sinn Féin comes across an issue, he said, it looks at ways to exploit it, rather than address it.
In the Republic anything can happen. In the north Sinn Fein still have the essential weapon of a leading party, the power of abstention. Judging from their manifesto launch, it’s far from clear how long they intend to go on using it.
While they say “we are about a new way of working within the institutions, on the basis of equality and respect,” northern leader Michelle O’Neill declared that.
While there is a cloud over Arlene Foster in relation to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal we will not be supporting her position of first minister or deputy first minister in an executive office.”
Asked if the Irish language act would be a deal breaker in the post-election talks, she said: ” I won’t be drawn on a red line” The gulf here appears wide but not impossibly so. The lesson of recent history shows how not to tackle it. A more modest solution than current demands needs tact and good will to reach. It may prove to be the acid test for “respect”, the lack of which Sinn Fein presents on behalf of all nationalists as its strongest grievance .
The manifesto has a long list of 25 “priorities” which aren’t themselves prioritised or framed for negotiations. Nevertheless most seem negotiable and many are commendable- sounding, such as “engaging with the legacy of the past”.
Their Brexit demand of “securing designated special status for the north” is not (yet) linked to their “ priority” of “an island wide referendum on Irish unity” following the Nicola Sturgeon model, if special status fails, as it surely has already. They can hardly motivate people to turn out to vote for an Assembly they are on the point of abandoning. The domesday alternative to the Assembly, of counting on a disastrous Brexit turning majority opinion in favour of a united Ireland, will have to wait on developments, far beyond the next series of elections in any of the jurisdictions.
Sinn Fein’s refusal to allow Arlene Foster to resume as First Minister or deputy is veto enough for months, if maintained. Blackballing the secretary of state James Brokenshire as chair of post-election talks may be another handy delaying tactic. The period from next month will show whether they’ve privately given up the Assembly or will use their veto power to try to jump start into a better position. So far they are successfully resisting Mrs Foster’s modest attempts at conciliation.
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