You hear all sorts of things when you talk to friends privately about what’s going on with Northern Ireland’s lost democracy. The absence of serious talks means that speculation is rife about what is on or off the table. All of it conjecture, none of it entirely reliable.
In the teeth of an election with some very tight fights, the private messages from both the DUP and Sinn Féin, the Siamese Twins of the Fresh Start era (well, era is perhaps stretching it a bit, the duopoly lasted a disasterous seven months) seems to be no surrender.
This should be taken with the usual dose of salt. Strategically, whether there is decisive outcome to the current General Election in Britain or not, neither party has anywhere more interesting to go than back to Stormont. It’s a question of the timeframe.
An outright majority for Johnson would mean the DUP’s big Westminster adventure is over. If not, even if their votes (along with any SDLP MP’s) are vital in moving a broad coalition towards a more moderate Brexit deal and referendum, it will be one among many.
With Brexit, it has found to its cost that hard bargaining can lead to an undesirable outcome for unionism at large. It remains to be seen whether it has internalised such harsh lessons when it comes to negotiations and wider public diplomacy in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Féin also finds itself in unfamiliar and problematic territory. The economic recovery in the Republic has been a disaster for the party. It’s appeal to young C1s and C2s in Dublin particular is fading. Meanwhile, its radical credentials are being stolen by the Greens.
If the council elections this year are any indication of what’s to come in May (and as Fianna Fail found out in 2010 and Fine Gael in 2016, they usually are) Mary Lou is facing a huge challenge not just to hold on to her Dáil seats, but to curb, like as not, some very large losses.
Significant participation in national government for both parties seems either completely off the table in the case of Sinn Féin or unlikely in the case of the DUP. So both will soon need another game to play if they are to continue to justify their existence as political parties.
Enter Secretary of State Julian Smith’s ultimatum that unless the parties talk, there will be fresh Assembly elections.
It’s also clear that no matter who wins the UK election, there won’t be a border poll. Talk to the contrary is mostly a fig-leaf to save Sinn Féin from the hard truth that underlying its public bravado, the party is running out of ideas about what to do next.
Slamming that constitutional door whilst opening one to an election has the advantage of exposing both main parties for the first time since 2003 to potentially awkward intra communal challenges on their joint failures of leadership both in and out of office.
Smith’s deadline may be tight, but it seems serious:
“The 13th of January is the deadline, after that Northern Ireland will be without political direction. This situation cannot continue, the people of Northern Ireland need political decision-making.
The institution of assembly is a key part of the Good Friday Agreement, we need the parties to get stuck in after the election.”
Of course, his party may not win that vital majority. The parties here may not move on each other’s red lines. But as I argued when the institutions were collapsing, the reality is that “Northern Ireland will have to find [its own] ways to solve its difficulties”.
Both major parties are tired, siege weary and devoid of practical ideas on how to get the institutions of the Belfast Agreement moving again. Their rivals should be thinking now about how to embed pragmatic solutions to the impasse and problems facing the plain folk of both communities within their own narratives before the next Assembly.
Whenever it might be.
“MY THIRD VISIT TO STORMONT IN TWO DAYS [STORMONT TRAILS]-150836” by infomatique is licensed under CC BY-SA
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