I was asked on Friday if I thought there would be a resolution to the current impasse and answered honestly with a “no idea” that brought only the inevitable derisory laughter at a public pundit declaring himself unable to take a punt.
But as Patrick Murphy in the Irish News on Saturday joyfully declared:
This is a difficult time for astrologers, especially those who dabble in British and Irish politics. It is not much fun for columnists either, because whatever about the other heavenly bodies, this part of our planet faces three unpredictable outcomes regarding future developments in Stormont, Westminster and Leinster House.
The difficulty arises from the extemporaneous nature of Stormont’s collapse. Sinn Fein’s exit was notable by its haste and untidiness leaving them with an internal power vacuum derived from Martin McGuinness’s untimely departure and death.
On the face of it, an unfeasibly slender bottleneck must be traversed before Northern Irish democracy can be re-assembled. On Friday, Alex Kane noted this research from LucidTalk:
66 per cent of DUP supporters—and almost 50 per cent of UUP/TUV/UKIP/PUP voters—are opposed to an Irish language act. When DUP voters were asked the question, ‘If the DUP judged that it suited DUP objectives to agree to a NI Irish Language Act, say as an overall agreement with SF, as a DUP voter would you agree with this?’, 50 per cent wouldn’t.
That will make Arlene Foster think twice before moving beyond the olive branch (legislation for a wider language and culture act) she offered Sinn Féin last week. And with around 70 per cent of Sinn Féin voters opposed to setting up the executive in the absence of an Irish language act, Michelle O’Neill will also be treading very carefully.
There are concerns at the UK government level that the local institutions are back up in time for publication of the Coghlin review, which gives us at least a couple of years. That would fit with reports that Sinn Fein wants the time frame to stretch to any spring election in the Republic.
The DUP has business in Westminster to attend (swapping favours between the Tories and Labour to remind everyone they’re not bought into everything the government wants), whilst Sinn Fein is fighting a southern rearguard against attacks from Fianna Fail over their collapse of Stormont.
The DUP will not want to abandon its newly found higher moral ground (being the party that stuck with the institutions set up under the Belfast Agreement) and is unlikely to force a rushed return to Stormont on Sinn Fein. The SoS is unlikely to do anything too drastic either.
For their part, Sinn Fein is still blaming the DUP for its own walkout:
The ongoing crisis is the culmination of successive financial scandals associated with the DUP, the failure to implement past agreements, and the rejection of proper power-sharing and partnership, and the failure to reciprocate significant gestures of reconciliation.
Increasingly the integrity of the political institutions has been eclipsed by The DUP’s hostility towards the Bill of Rights, an Irish Language Act, marriage equality and issues such as anti-poverty and racial equality strategies, tackling sectarianism, or dealing with the past have defined that party’s mind set towards working in the Executive and Assembly.
In fact, the bill of rights was tried twice and failed twice because the local human rights lobby insisted (against the better counsel of one former Human Rights Commissioner) on a maximal bill. Ditto, Sinn Fein’s promises to the sector over the Irish language bill.
In both cases, they’ve only succeeded in demonising the language and any prospective Act in the eyes of the wider unionist electorate and making delivery just that wee bit more impossible within the confines of the institutions of the Belfast Agreement.
But Powersharing ≠ Give us everything we ask for. Without the intervention of local political grown-ups, this is a game which, apparently, the two main protagonists believe can go on indefinitely.
It was ever thus. Back in 2009, just two years into the restart of Stormont, I noted that: “between the chuckling and the icy silences and internal miscommunication, we have stasis in Stormont Castle.” Not much has changed since: nor is it likely to. [Happy Groundhog Day! – Ed]
The non-arrival of the Irish Language Act is a sin of a now long defunct UK administration (see Annex A), not the DUP. So SF’s argument in this regard has all the force and currency of a 1967 ten bob note.
Indeed, it seems only to have encouraged the DUP’s own light-fingered “culture crocs” to enhance the pitch and scale of their demands through a combined culture act. That’s not something that will go down well with the highly educated (and cultured) folks at An Dream Dearg.
Despite shipping heavy criticism from Jim Allister last Friday, Nelson McCausland did a reasonable job of outlining how Irish language broadcast outputs had few analogs for the Ulster Scots, English and Orange traditions. [What about Walter Love on the 12th? – Ed]. Well, exactly.
Commencement of the RHI Inquiry proper has been pushed back to November, the original trigger for the collapse has been long-fingered. The real problem remains how government can emerge from parties who are seemingly incapable of dealing straight through the middle?
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