SF’s desertion of Stormont downgrades nationalism’s voice to weak commentary

On the Slugger TV on NVTV, Allison Morris pointed out that whilst SF’s position on RHI was a last minute switch from backing the DUP to the hilt (perhaps having mutually agreed a fall guy), the reasons later substituted don’t scan against their decade in government.

Newton Emerson joins a growing number of commentators clearly running out of patience with the patronising nonsense now flowing out of Sinn Fein’s energetic PR operation:

What began in January with understandable grievances has become transparently cynical opportunism. It is no exaggeration to say lives have been put at risk – a UK-wide bowel cancer screening programme cannot be extended to Northern Ireland because there is no minister for health to sign it off.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin has held an event in Derry to discuss “the disastrous impact Brexit will have on the health service”. The party’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill – who was minister for health before January’s Stormont walk-out – indulged in more posturing on Monday by calling for all-party talks to begin a week early, on August 28th.

DUP former minister Simon Hamilton denounced this as “a stunt”. Such a response to an apparent republican olive branch would have sounded arrogant several months ago. Now it chimes with the wider mood – the political editor of the Irish News concurred with Hamilton’s assessment.

Emerson notes that the hysteria on mainland Britain over the DUP has subsided. In addition to that, an early election seems unlikely because:

  •  the direct price imposed by the DUP on the Tories is both bearable and light;
  • the outcome would likely make life unbearable for the Conservatives (and the Brexit process would become tricky and possibly unmanageable).

Even in early summer contacts with DUPers and ex DUPers, the consensus is that the June outcome took huge pressure off the DUP. For now, even as they forcefully advocate for a return to Stormont, they don’t actually need it to be able to exert power and influence.

Newton again:

Hamilton made a particularly revealing remark in July, when discussing the prospects for talks. “Sinn Féin can’t demand a 10-nil win,” he said. Republicans make that demand by claiming they only want previous, unmet agreements to be honoured.

In fact, Sinn Féin was technically outmanoeuvred on everything it says it was promised – “outsmarted agreements” would be a better term.

It is entirely legitimate for Sinn Féin to have lost patience with this and deployed its nuclear option of bringing down the executive. Now the DUP can withstand the fallout, however, the conventional rules of deal-making apply and a five-all draw would be the truly equal outcome.

Because everyone knows the DUP would concede this in a heartbeat, Sinn Féin’s continued absolutism looks increasingly self-indulgent. [Emphasis added]

Here’s the real coup de grace:

Northern Ireland is without a regional government but of course it is not ungoverned. The civil service ticks along on autopilot, helped by budget interventions from the Northern Ireland Office.

These have strayed beyond the Belfast Agreement, yet Sinn Féin has been unable to criticise them, as it offers no alternative but chaos. Precedents are slowly being set for de-facto direct rule.

This can only go on for so long before republicans are visibly marginalising themselves. [Emphasis added]

Far from enhancing SF’s power, that retreat from Stormont last January was (yet another) withdrawal under pressure from its own base (not unionists or anyone else) at the lack of any tangible product from ten years in near absolute power.

It diminishes nationalism’s public voice in NI to little more than weakened commentary. Like this seemingly inadvertent admission by the new MP for Foyle that Stormont is unnecessary to help save Derry homes from the terrible flooding of the last few days:

And elections in the south? The growth of the party’s machine means it should continue to gain seats, though perhaps not at last year’s record rate. Even Fine Gael is talking up its nationalist credentials, so we can expect a far more competitive fight from rival parties this time.

In Northern Ireland, however, Sinn Fein has long underestimated the DUP in the way many of its own opponents previously underestimated it. It’s a very long time since it came back from any of the several Stormont collapses it has induced with any tangible concession.

In initiating this collapse (rather than forcing Unionism to make it happen), Martin McGuinness had the power of first mover. But then in June, the DUP was rewarded with a long shot win in Westminster which it had worked hard for ten years to make possible.

Rising chatter about a united Ireland seems consonant with SF’s collapse of Stormont. But many miss that sage advice from Daniel Taylor, that “the power of an imagined end, and it literally can only be imagined, lies in its ability to influence present choices.”

Disengagement from the institutions of the Belfast Agreement, means that most of this talk comes with little promise of influence. There is no Seventh Cavalry, and no place to go other than a return to influencing through action from nationalism’s northern home. Eventually.

As I noted in an op ed in early January for the Irish Independent

At a time when the UK is preoccupied with Brexit, the US is bracing itself for Trump and the new politics of the Republic is struggling to get anything agreed never mind done, mollycoddling the pampered politicians of Northern Ireland is an indulgence none of them can afford. The Blairs and Aherns, with their long-term peace objectives and abundance of resources, are long gone.

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