Newton Emerson: Sinn Féin softens Stormont and Brexit demands

Pragmatism from party is connected to its prospects south of the Border

Deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald and Northern leader Michelle O’Neill were impressively vague this week about Sinn Féin’s campaign for EU special status. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald and Northern leader Michelle O’Neill were impressively vague this week about Sinn Féin’s campaign for EU special status. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

 

Sinn Féin is establishing realistic goals at Stormont and on Brexit, after months of confusion and absolutism.

At Stormont, the phrase to watch for is “outstanding commitments”.

Republican grievances have until now been presented as matters of equality, blocked by the disrespect and arrogance of the DUP.

At a meeting with the Taoiseach last week, however, Gerry Adams repackaged them in terms of outstanding commitments from the Belfast Agreement and its successors – agreements all underwritten by the British and Irish governments.

This week, Kenny echoed the key phrase while standing beside Theresa May, at the press conference after their Brexit summit in Dublin.

“I emphasised to the prime minister the importance of finding a way forward on outstanding commitments, and in particular on issues like the legacy institutions under the Stormont House Agreement, and the Irish language,” he said, responding to a question on the Northern deadlock.

“We will maintain very close contact over the coming weeks.”

That makes it official, and quite specific. Sinn Féin’s issues at Stormont have been kicked up to sovereign state level, to be dealt with by the co-guarantors of the peace process.

Drama

It is debatable if the grievances belong at that level or if any commitments are outstanding but solutions can now be imposed over the DUP’s head, which may be the only practical option.

Because the collapse of Stormont has been a Sinn Féin-led drama, there has been little analysis of how far the DUP might yield.

In conversations with party figures, my impression is that an Irish Language Act is considered out of the question, and that the more the DUP is damaged at the polls the less inclined it will be to show even tactical generosity.

Just as well, then, that Adams has set the bar at Stormont so low. All he is now asking of the DUP directly is for some nebulous post-election “respect”. He has also begun speaking of the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, agreed with the DUP two weeks ago, as being sufficient to address any “corruption” that stands in the way of a restored Executive.

On Brexit, there has been an equally rapid softening of Sinn Féin’s stance.

The party’s initial position, after last June’s referendum, was for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU when the rest of the UK left. The SNP was making a similar demand in Scotland, based on the example of Greenland.

Last October, Martin McGuinness mentioned “associate membership” if full membership was not possible. At the following month’s all-Ireland Brexit forum, there was a consensus for EU “special status”. Adams disagreed, insisting Ireland as a whole should stay in the EU. But he added: “We should also look to already unique arrangements in place in the European Union. ”

Vague

This week, Sinn Féin shamelessly launched a campaign for EU special status. At an event in Belfast, deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald and Northern leader Michelle O’Neill were impressively vague about what this might entail.

The plain fact is that it could mean anything. Of the EU’s 28 member states, 19 have territories that are wholly or partly exempt from EU provisions, all via bespoke arrangements.

The reason Brussels objects so strongly to the term “Europe a la carte” is because it is so obviously and inconveniently true.

It is clear that London and Dublin want a deal for Northern Ireland and the EU will almost certainly oblige. Devolved administrations will have no input. So the sensible thing for republicans to do is to let that deal shape up, then say it was what they wanted all along.

O’Neill as good as admitted this is the plan, saying: “The Dublin Government will be at the Brexit negotiating table as an EU member state, they will have a veto on whatever emerges on the far side of those negotiations. They must use that position and the power of that veto to act in the best interests of all Irish citizens.”

Motion

There is a widespread assumption that pragmatism from Sinn Féin is connected to its prospects in Dublin. Setting fire to Stormont and waving placards on the Border will only deter approaches from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, as well as putting off Southern voters in general.

But rivalry with Northern nationalists still seems to be a factor.

Last December, Sinn Féin pulled the plug on its original inquiry deal with the DUP, precipitating the collapse of Stormont, because the SDLP raised a motion of no confidence in Arlene Foster.

Two months before that, the first cracks appeared in Sinn Féin’s EU membership demand when the SDLP called for special status for Northern Ireland. Republicans felt obliged to support the motion, despite arguing against it.

Sinn Féin may be willing to gamble with Stormont but it still cannot bear to lose there.

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