James Brokenshire’s threat to call another election in three week’s time can be seen in a de-escalating sequence of British responses . First came the massive care and attention of the Good Friday Agreement, of presidents and prime ministers (Blair full time, Clinton on the phone, Bertie Ahern flying up from his mother’s funeral for the final act), the inevitable stretched deadlines up to the end of the Easter vigil; the ups and downs leading to “ acts of completion;” second wind at St Andrews and a final symbolically stretched deadline just to show “the English” aren’t the bosses any more. The Blair era and the Brown footnote were followed by a marked change of status for the treatment of Northern Ireland’s psychodrama. No more castles and kings. Instant access to the Downing St sofa withdrawn. The top flight consultants bow out and treatment is left to GPs determined not to overprescribe.
For all the criticism made of her, Theresa Villiers managed to broker a deal to set a steadier course at a second attempt Fresh Start. Or so we thought. It would take time of course, Sinn Fein agreed. But at some point over the past four months, their patience snapped.
So too now it seems, has the patience of the British government, fed up at last with their treatment as the whipping boy for the big egos in our little political mental ward. So it’s tough love time, darlings. But is it the wise course?
A second election would be another battle of the turnouts, all the fiercer because of what has just happened. We can’t exclude a little subversive rioting on the side. Watch out Short Strand and Twaddell and God knows where else. This time, no messing . Straight nationalist versus unionist with the SDLP and Ulster Unionists forced into bitterly opposing lines. The soft centre weakened in the binary battle. One last heave for a couple of thousand votes and another fateful step is taken to produce a Sinn Fein First Minister, the blow to unionists unsofted by an unbearably magnanimous offer to rebrand as joint first minsters.
And how does unionism tack? Towards unionist unity certainly but with a softer line to woo the soft centre? Or the Alamo? Who would put odds on a unionist victory when big Mo is with the other side? Unionist turmoil is there for all to see.
The logic of Brokenshire’s threat means a rush to a bottom line, but which one? If unionists offer Arlene on a plate, and no blocking for same sex marriage, an Irish Language Act and funding for inquests, is the crocodile sated for the moment or does it come back for more?
Alex Kane is a thousand times better placed to know the mood better than I, but for me his scenario- play in the Irish News fails to match the level of events. His analysis peters out in anti-climactic musing about the fate of the Ulster Unionists. I fear he has failed to absorb the implications of the Sinn Fein surge for their future tactics, even in response to united unionism. For instance..
“it’s a huge mistake for Sinn Féin to imagine that a good day for it last Thursday would translate into a good day if a border poll were called. And while Brexit may vex some unionists and some constitutional agnostics, it would be wrong—very wrong, in my opinion—to assume that their vexation would trump their desire to remain within the United Kingdom.
Perhaps, perhaps not. The Brexit referendum proves that people vote on more than the headline issue. If the atmosphere was still all about sticking it to the DUP the result could be unpredictable. In the real world, even after a 45% plus share for nationalism in a second election, there will not be a border poll. But there could be a squeak off 50% and Gerry Adams know what he’s doing, playing on unionist nerves. Bating unionists with the issue entertains his support.
If the momentum is so clearly with Sinn Fein, is the Assembly doomed? The one thing you wouldn’t bet on is a completed deal in three weeks. The best scenario available is that the two governments will declare that enough progress has been made next week or thereabouts to extend the deadline by means of a single day’s work in Westminster. And so with relief we’d return to familiar territory. The pressure is on unionism first and they know it. In the world of chaos over Brexit, Sinn Fein the lords of chaos are entirely at home.
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