Sinn Fein’s tactical playbook does not include what to do if unionists play generous and smart

So Brexit, eh?  How’s that going for you? Will it affect your vote? Or is it business as usual? Signs are from England that since it is still impossible to define what Brexit looks like the strong Remain position the Lib Dems took isn’t paying off well for them.

In Scotland, the whole thing is being run aggressively as an anti-SNP/anti-#ScotRef referendum. The SNP is protected by the ongoing weakness of Scottish Labour, yet those who predicted the Tories were going nowhere have had their minds forcibly changed by the council results.

It’s a useful reminder that the historical determinism that has dominated not just Northern Irish Nationalist politics, but a large chunk of nationalist commentary, north and south, is really something of a naive fallacy.

Nationalism needs a longer vision, not a short-term plan on the basis that Brexit is a winning lottery ticket blown in on a wind of supposed unionist stupidity. That supposition that their rivals were thick has served SF well with its home base. But it’s no route map to a united Ireland.

This purblindness was the subject of Eoghan Harris’ Sindo column on Sunday, in which he laid out on the sheer invisibility of works of good authority when done by Unionists in the eyes of the southern Irish establishment…

According to his own lights (not widely shared it has to be said)…

The DFA’s default negotiating position is that the Northern Ireland problem is primarily between us and the Brits. The democratic position – and I would argue the moral one – is that the problem is primarily between us and Northern Protestants.

RTE shares the default DFA view, with its codicil that Sinn Fein’s take on the peace process must be preserved at any price. That was why RTE missed an important peace move – as distinct from peace process move – in the week leading up to the Brussels “unity” bluster.

For two days running, Arlene Foster risked the wrath of her wilder DUP members by reaching out to Northern nationalists.

Firstly, she visited Our Lady’s Grammar School Newry, and tried out her few words of Irish. The following day she took a bigger risk by writing a piece for The Irish News which supported a soft border.

RTE failed to publicise Foster’s pluralist moves. Instead, it pumped hot air into the “unity” balloon. To the delight of Sinn Fein, frantic for a distraction from Foster’s flanking movement.

Luckily, The Irish News, which deals in real news, gave Foster positive front- page coverage. [Emphasis added]

This sort of narrative cannot be made to disappear just by ignoring it or not talking about it. It was easier when the DUP leader was acting stupidly and arrogantly to dismiss them and re-assert the favoured (and electorally beneficial) narrative.

But Harris continues:

Tom Kelly presciently noted what no southern pundit has seen so far – that Sinn Fein is struggling tactically to respond to Foster’s new moves.

“Sinn Fein has still to find anyone within their ranks capable of matching the generosity of the late Martin McGuinness to reciprocate such moves.”

The most successful stratagem in the reiterative Prisoner’s dilemma is tit for tat. By those lights, I judged Robinson’s binning the Maze project at the conclusion of the flag dispute as a punishment for nationalism failing to settle for a compromise in Belfast City Council.

But it is important also to reward good behaviour of your opponents. By the same rule, Mrs Foster’s aggressively good-natured rapprochement with the Irish language requires a reciprocal response from nationalism. Something most notable by its absence

If the long term plan was to haul the place down for the next four years (a statement perhaps apocryphally ascribed to the SF Finance Minster as the institutions were crashing before Christmas), Sinn Fein’s tactical playbook does not include what to do if unionists play generous and smart.

Harris finishes with a reference to Bertie Ahern and the art of compromise (or politics as it is known elsewhere):

Bertie Ahern’s critics will hate to hear this, but acting as his own foreign minister, Ahern has the best record in defying the DFA mandarins in order to reach out to unionists and treat them as neighbours, not pawns.

Let me select just one example, taken from George Mitchell’s memoir.

In November 1997, when Foreign Minister David Andrews, following the DFA dictat, said publicly that any Strand 2 cross border bodies would have “strong executive functions not unlike a government”.

David Trimble objected to this sly piece of pan-nationalism. In April 1998, Ahern repudiated Andrews – who gallantly did what had to be done for peace and apologised. Against DFA advice of course.

No plan for a united Ireland which either abjures or proactively obstructs the active participation of unionists in its development has a pup’s chance of going anywhere. That may sound impossible, but the constitutional settlements of 1997 mean there’s little viable alternative.

As Harris says, “the problem is primarily between us and Northern Protestants“, constantly stopping the game and calling for the ref to adjudicate cannot hide the fact that no such plan or formula exists.

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