Despite the parties’ ‘poor mouth’ there are grounds for cautious optimism in Northern Ireland…

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. And no, I’m not talking about the Tory leadership contest but the fact that the top story on the BBC NI News Politics page this morning is…

In fact the story is already two days old, but even given the fact it is the political silly season, we aren’t exactly cycling the real news cycle in Northern Ireland too speedily. But how did a do for those MLAs who are elected but not in negotiation get to hold the page for two days?

Simples, our political leaders continue to lecture each other on what political leadership means, rather than showing it themselves. Talk, no walk.

And yet below the waterline, and despite the fact the current SoS is likely to go when the new PM takes over in the summer, there are clear grounds for cautious optimism. As I argued at the time of the collapse there would be no new capital to spend on NI in London, Dublin or Washington.

I further maintained that nothing would change until the incentives changed for the local parties to allow them fix NI’s problems themselves. This applies to them all, but in particular to the one that has been primarily responsible for the collapse of the Stormont Assembly: ie, Sinn Féin.

Those incentives finally changed with the local election results in the south that saw them lose half of their councillors and compounded by the Euro elections when the party failed to retain two out of their three sitting MEPs.

The admission by Matt Carthy that Sinn Féin had not seen these results coming was refreshingly honest but it also spells trouble for the settled position within the party that it could afford to wait for the southern general election before considering what to do about Northern Ireland.

There was, apparently, some surprise before Christmas when Micheal Martin announced that he would not be calling for an election until 2019. Clearly northern elected representatives of the party had been briefed (by someone) to expect a big ruck and new Dáil before Christmas.

Last month’s results and Martin’s shelving of an early election faces Sinn Féin’s ‘the south must come first‘ strategy with a painful challenge.

As for the DUP whatever turbulence may be in store over Arlene’s handling of RHI as the lead party of Unionism they have zero to gain from a further prolongation of the collapse of Stormont.

Whatever the expected lifespan of the confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservatives it has already served its primary service of giving the party an actual purpose in the eyes of their voters whilst the local institutions were down.

Given Sinn Féin’s determination to take them down (and given the one seat separation between them in the 2017 Assembly election they almost did it two years ago) they C&S at Westminster was just a lucky break for them and at least some of them know it.

They also recognise that neither the short term weather nor political climate in London is not theirs to control. Despite the coming fight over marriage equality they understand only too well northern Ireland is where they must grind out the bulk of their in season senior league baseball.

As for Alliance, they must impatient to see to what extent they are able to consolidate their recent gains at the expense of Ulster Unionism and the soft nationalist vote that they’ve made under their leader Naomi Long along with a real possibility of pushing decisively into third place.

As for the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist parties, they have a strong case to press for a reversal of the St Andrews Agreement which made it almost impossible for them to compete for either of the two top offices in the Executive, especially as both the DUP and Sinn Féin want them back in.

What they both have in common is a cultural failure to recognise that is the seats held by other parties on their own side they need for political recovery are the parties within the same designation group as them, not the incumbent on the other side of the community from them.

Unless and until that habit of the last twenty years is broken decisively then no structural reform will turn their ailing fortunes around. Until then we are stuck with two big leaky liners with the Alliance lifeboat taking on board liberal refugees from either side.


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