Northern deadlock: another test of credibility

Sinn Féin and the DUP must prove they can be taken seriously as grown-up politicians

 

Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party have only a few weeks to demonstrate if they are serious about restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland. Although Northern Secretary James Brokenshire has again extended the deadline for agreement, he has warned that if it does not happen by early May it will result in direct rule or fresh Assembly elections.

As few people believe another round of elections will change anything the only alternative to a restored power sharing executive is direct rule. With the enormous challenge of Brexit looming, it would be a gross dereliction of duty by the two biggest parties if they fail to find a way of ensuring that the voice of the North is heard on the issue.

It is not as if they are at loggerheads on basic issues of principle as they were in the past. A compromise on the contentious issues of the Irish language, the legacy of the past, and equality is surely feasible.

One hopeful sign last week was that DUP leader Arlene Foster recognised that respect for the Irish language is an important point of principle for the nationalist community. Her announcement that she intended to engage with Irish language speakers was clearly an olive branch of some kind even if she qualified it by saying she wanted to engage with people who genuinely loved the Irish language and were not intent on using it as a political weapon.

Foster will need to go further and agree the terms of an Irish Language Act in order to build sufficient trust with the nationalist community to facilitate the restoration of powersharing.

Such a move would be a real test of Sinn Féin’s sincerity. Following its gains in the Assembly elections, the party has given the impression it is not serious about engaging with the other parties to form a new administration. The focus for Sinn Féin appears to have shifted to its campaign for a united Ireland.

Some of its opponents suspect that the party’s leadership doesn’t really want to go back to accepting a share of responsibility for running the North and would prefer direct rule so that it can engage in outright opposition to the administrations on both sides of the Border.

Although that strategy may be attractive to some in Sinn Féin, the downside is that it would give ammunition to its opponents in the Dáil and in the North who argue that the party is not capable of taking the responsibility that goes with being in office. In the long run that perception could undermine Sinn Féin’s prospects of entering government in the Republic and fulfilling its ambition of being in power on both sides of the Border.

Sinn Féin and the DUP have only a few weeks left to prove to the Irish and British governments and indeed to the voters of Northern Ireland that they deserve to be taken seriously as grown-up politicians.

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