One of the most enduring political quotes of 20th British politics is attributed to the Independent Labour MP John Maxton for Glasgow Bridgton, which goes to the effect that “if you cannot ride two horses at once, you shouldn’t be in the circus”.
When you consider from a distance what’s been occupying Northern Ireland’s columnists, ie Sinn Fein’s dilemma over how to build a coherent all island political project over two separate political entities with rapidly diverging and after Brexit, potentially conflicting political cultures.
Patrick Murphy in Saturday’s Irish News puts his fingers on SF’s dilemma:
The driving force behind them is the party’s belief that being in power in Dublin and Belfast at the same time will deliver a united Ireland. It would be a good theory if it were not for the potential threat from loyalism and the vagaries of southern politics. But it would certainly do the party no harm.
Until three months ago, SF had achieved the first part of its strategy. But it was slow (very slow) to realise that the benefits of sharing power at Stormont were outweighed by growing public contempt for an exceptionally poor government.
The aim was for Martin McGuinness to hold Stormont together until Gerry Adams delivered power in Dublin. But SF’s concessions to unionism and Stormont’s inability to deliver, or even devise, a realistic programme for government damaged public confidence in the north and made Sinn Féin less than credible in the Dáil.
Murphy speculates that had McGuinness not died so prematurely, then “Sinn Féin might still be in the executive under a new agreement. He believed it promoted the party’s image as potential coalition partners in Dublin and he tolerated no criticism of Stormont.”
This hints that the collapse of Stormont was dictated by a party weakness rather than a strength.
Certainly, Adams insistence on taking everything over from Martin rather than delegating directly to Ms O’Neill suggests that, despite much speculation to the contrary, the leadership was far from prepared for a northern succession.
Derek Mooney, a veteran advisor of several Fianna Fail led coalitions (and occasional contributor to Slugger), sees this in the contrasting confidence of that joint statement of last October, and the vacuum of now:
Exactly 18 weeks ago The Irish News carried a joint article from the then First and Deputy First Minister with the headline: First and Deputy First Minister vow to just ‘get on with the work’ with ‘no gimmicks’.
If only their parties had both stuck to that promise. In that article both the DUP and Sinn Féin presented themselves as the twin pillars of progress and duty…
And, he notes…
The turnabout did not take eight weeks, it took just two and a half – that was the gap between the Felons Club speech and Sinn Féin abstaining on the December 19th vote of No Confidence in Arlene Foster.
Adams used the RHI scandal and the DUP’s inept handling of it to turn the November 21 joint declaration from Foster and McGuinness on its head. He had come to recognise something that voters had already seen – that Sinn Féin in office was not delivering.
Top of his list of failures was the failure to produce a Bill of Rights followed by the absence of an Irish Language Act. There were other issues too; the decision to renege on the Programme for Government commitment on the Long Kesh site; the DUP’s resistance to the legacy and truth recovery mechanisms of the Stormont House agreement; the Red Sky scandal and the Project Eagle debacle.
His key point though is that all of this belies a lack of coherent strategy…
Adams had no strategic or political interest in resolving this crisis. This has been his modus operandi for most of his career, well for the latter political portion of it. When things get tough Adams throws all the balls in the air and then lectures others at length about their responsibility to sort it out.
You’d have to add, though, that his party has not done badly off it. In the chaos and confusion that ensues, everyone else runs around like headless chickens sorting out a problem that exists largely because of Sinn Fein’s own domestic weaknesses.
A problem, in other words, that can only be solved (if it had the political will) by Sinn Fein itself. But the calculation is that if it’s impossible (without McGuinness) to ride both northern and southern horses, then close it down and blame everyone else.
In an ideal world, Sinn Féin will not re-enter Stormont until after the next election – in the south, not the north. Since the world is far from ideal (especially in Ireland) the party might not get its way.
However, aspiring to membership of Dublin’s next coalition government is one of three reasons why SF is boycotting Stormont. The other two are Brexit and the realisation that the assembly had become an electoral liability.
With the fragmentation of southern politics, there’s undoubtedly a game afoot for SF in the south. But as we’ve seen with the untimely loss of McGuinness even Sinn Fein can be vulnerable to that other great sententious maxim from British politics: “events, dear boy, events”.
Collapsing Stormont without good or coherent reason is de facto admission of the structural weakness of its all island civil revolution.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty