The Irish Times political editor Stephens Collins enjoys an unusual dual role of senior political reporter and opinionated commentator. It’s not always clear if he’s getting a bead on emerging trends of opinion in politics or simply speaking for himself. Perhaps what Stephen thinks today, many of the guys in Leinster House think tomorrow? Today, he asks the blunt questions about Sinn Fein’s real intentions towards the Assembly.
While most of us were struggling with conflicting feelings, he writes off the McGuinness funeral as basically republican propaganda, Clinton included. He reaches the conclusion that if Gerry Adams is gaming the Stormont talks in order to advance the cause of achieving power in the south, it means Sinn Fein is effectively abandoning the Good Friday Agreement and the Dublin government should abandon the long term strategy of giving aid and support to Sinn Fein’s approach to the North.
The question arises, what different course should Dublin follow? The only one that seems to be available would be to differentiate clearly the cause of Irish unity from closer north-south links to cope with Brexit that most people including Theresa May wants. This ambiguity has always been a huge problem for unionists and to a lesser extent London. Clearing it up would make north-south cooperation much easier.
Collins’ message seems designed mainly for Fianna Fail ears. How big a boost is Sinn Fein in the Republic really receiving from their success in the North? The result will strongly influence other parties’ behaviour. Do they try to out- green them or become more agnostic in the volatile outlook of today? Pressing the questions concedes a tactical advantage that the traditional parties of government in the Republic loathe. There is no easy answer.
Sinn Féin’s decision to torpedo the Assembly talks belies all the fine words at the McGuinness funeral about the acceptance of compromise as the only basis for a political settlement in Northern Ireland.
The sudden decision to walk away from the talks raises serious questions about whether the party really wants to resurrect the powersharing institutions established by the Belfast Agreement or whether it is now completely focused on achieving power south of the Border.
The next few weeks will tell if Sinn Féin is simply engaged in another bout of political gamesmanship, aimed at pushing the Irish and British governments and all of the other Northern parties into making concessions, or whether it represents a more fundamental shift in strategy.
If Sinn Féin makes it clear in the next few weeks that it is not prepared to engage with the institutions established in 1998 the Government in Dublin will need to take a long, hard look at the strategy it has been following for more than two decades.
That strategy involved giving aid and support to Sinn Féin at every stage in the tortuous negotiations that resulted in the Belfast Agreement and its successors. If the party now effectively abandons the agreement a serious rethink of that approach will be will required
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