The Challenge facing Sinn Fein

With the focus having switched from Westminster to Stormont, speculation will continue to grow about the nature and likelihood of any deal to deliver a return of devolved government.

Yet many continue to miss one key factor which is likely to mitigate against a quick return to Stormont.

The republican leaders now in the spotlight will be very conscious of the reality that the most popular and reinvigorating measure taken by a Sinn Fein leader over the past decade was Martin McGuinness’ decision to pull the plug on the devolution era.

That was not the result of any grand scheme hatched by Sinn Fein leaders to precipitate a political crisis, but a product of grassroots pressure across nationalism forcing the party leadership’s hand.

How that situation came to pass is not simply a tale of DUP arrogance and misconduct, but is also a criticism of how republicans had allowed themselves to be outmanoeuvred into a position in which the DUP appeared to be the dominant player at Stormont.

Highlighting the DUP actions which enraged nationalists in the final weeks culminating in Stormont’s collapse and in the months that followed is relatively straightforward- RHI, NAMA, Liofa, Community Hall Fund, Crocodile barbs- all collectively provided many straws that broke the already weary camel’s back.

But the republican leadership must also engage in the type of critically self-reflective process necessary to ensure they recognise, acknowledge and address the shortcomings in their own approach, both at key negotiation junctures in the past and through the devolution era.

It is a very long time since a round of political negotiations was concluded in which there was a broad sense across nationalism that a fair deal had been struck.

The fact Sinn Fein continue to have to lobby for an Irish Language Act, Anti-Poverty Strategy and Bill of Rights only serves to underline how their failure to nail down in clear terms the delivery of promises secured in earlier negotiations (going back to Good Friday) should caution against agreeing any set of proposals which leaves any room for doubt regarding the content, mechanism and timetable for delivery, never mind consequences for failure to do so.

To that list of unfulfilled promises could be added the Maze Long Kesh ‘deal’ reneged on by Peter Robinson, and the cock-up surrounding the devolution of policing and justice which only came to pass due to the political and personal tsunami that affected the DUP and Robinson household.

The pledge to deliver on the Military Covenant in the DUP-Tory deal is deeply provocative and will cause considerable anger within nationalism, as will the language used when describing British Forces and their role in the conflict. There is already more than a suspicion that the DUP-Tory deal contains below the radar agreements on issues that could further antagonise nationalists and precipitate a new political crisis in the not too distant future in the event of this one being resolved in the short to medium term.

The commitment by the British Government and DUP to “adhere fully to their respective commitments set out in the Belfast Agreement and its successors” will be the starting point for republicans refusing to budge until the outstanding issues from those past agreements are resolved.

Yet it is in the nature of the relationship between the two parties at Stormont that republicans will either succeed in restoring faith in the devolution project amongst their base community or run the risk of once again alienating them.

The DUP are not for changing.

If a deal is signed this week, or in the Autumn, it will need to signal the beginning of a harder, sharper and hungrier approach from Sinn Fein.

Re-establishing an equilibrium between the competing political forces is vital to the long-term stability of a revived Executive, and the change necessary to bring about the realignment must come from the republican side.

That poses real challenges for a northern Sinn Fein leadership still feeling its way through a phase of transition.

The mistakes of Fresh Start and what came before, of blinking first and erring on the side of pragmatism to keep the show on the road, must be fully appreciated.

One area I would expect to see progress upon is in relation to the appointment of the Justice Minister in any returning Executive. There was a sense that Sinn Fein had demeaned themselves and their community when they effectively endorsed a publicly proclaimed DUP veto of a Nationalist Justice Minister ahead of the appointment of a nominally Unionist elected representative, Claire Sugden, to the post in the ill-fated Fresh Start Executive.

Conceding to the DUP’s attempts to subvert the principle of objective need being used to direct funding at Executive level was another critical mistake.

The approach that led to the acceptance of the Social Investment Fund programme in its form needs to be openly ditched by republicans, and the case for funding, including the additional funding secured as part of the DUP-Tory deal, to be allocated on the basis of objective need must form a central part of Sinn Fein’s delivery agenda before and after agreeing any deal with the DUP.

Gerry Adams was right when he remarked of the DUP-Tory Westminster deal that the ‘devil was in the detail.’

The challenge for Sinn Fein is to make sure that they get the detail right this time.

For Sinn Fein, no deal is much better than the wrong deal.