Newton Emerson: Time for the Sinn Féin crocodile to be fed
Stormont’s veto system has worked so far, but the next generation will expect more
Generational change: Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Adams. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty
Broadly speaking, Arlene Foster is correct. Feed the Sinn Féin crocodile and it will just come back for more. Republicans intend to settle for nothing less than a united Ireland, implicitly recognised by the Belfast Agreement as the end point of the peace process. So this riverside buffet is only heading one way.
Because the latest spurned demand is for an Irish language act, Foster has been accused of cultural ignorance and intolerance. Whatever the former first minister’s faults in that regard, her critics may put down the smelling salts. Irish became a totem in the current Stormont crisis essentially at random, after a DUP minister cut a small Gaeltacht bursary at precisely the wrong moment during the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.
Before that, there had been no mention of the language, let alone of legislation, through three previous crises and their associated negotiations.
So if Sinn Féin was not snapping for Irish, it would be after something else. The last demand was for a Border poll outside the terms of the agreement, and no doubt that will be revisited.
Devolution gives unionist leaders considerable sway over managing republican expectations. Foster is little different from her predecessors in her instinct to starve the crocodile, but even curmudgeons such as Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and David Trimble avoided actively taunting it.
Manner and tone have been critical in bringing the DUP leader to grief, and this continues to make her predicament worse, as demonstrated at the hapless election launch where she made her crocodile remark. Foster increasingly appears to be a broken woman, slowly realising that circumstances have exceeded her political abilities and that the hungry republican reptile has swallowed her whole. At Sinn Féin’s election launch, Gerry Adams and northern leader Michelle O’Neill simply laughed at Foster’s petulance – a rare republican refusal to take offence. Adams has already brought the language issue up to British and Irish government level, along with most of the rest of his Stormont agenda.
That has raised a question about the structure of devolution itself: if republicans have to collapse the institutions for delivery, should they be resurrected differently, or at all?
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Foster’s actions have revealed the problem to be Stormont’s built-in vetoes. Each side has an equal power to block the other, a power initially given to protect nationalists from a unionist majority.
Yet this has turned out to be a huge advantage to unionism. As defender of the status quo, it only has to block Sinn Féin to “win”, until republicans can bear defeat no longer. Perhaps that moment was always going to come, but Foster’s thoughtless gloating has brought it forward by years.
A technical fix might be enough to solve the problem. The assembly veto operates through a petition mechanism that all sides have abused, but which the DUP has exploited most often and effectively. A new protocol on its use was promised in the 2015 Fresh Start agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin, so the principle has already been addressed.
Any further weakening of the veto system would be significantly harder to arrange, however. Replacing the petition with weighted majority voting would require changing the Belfast Agreement and its enabling legislation.
At executive level, the veto concept is equated with mandatory power-sharing, the foundation of the peace process.
Some unionists, especially in the DUP, would like to ditch this in order to keep Sinn Féin out of office. As soon as the present crisis became serious enough to raise structural questions, voices in the DUP proposed voluntary power-sharing as an answer. But the aim of this is so obvious that it remains completely unacceptable to nationalists.
That leaves little scope for easy reform. Stormont can almost certainly be patched up and made to work for a while longer, but there is a growing sense that it is just petering out. Could this mark the end of a generational cycle?
The Troubles ended when 1970s-era paramilitaries approached the age of 50, a factor considered decisive by US government advisers.
Now people who were young adults when the agreement was devised are themselves approaching 50. The republicans among them can see only failure, while the twentysomethings behind them have known nothing else.
This makes marriage equality an intriguing pick in Sinn Féin’s key demands; it has been given at least equal billing with an Irish language act. The DUP has repeatedly blocked marriage equality, latterly by petition, but that has hardly exercised nationalist voters. It is the only item on Sinn Féin’s talks wish-list that has not been the subject of previous agreements, so it cannot be elevated to British and Irish government level. In Stormont terms, marriage equality sticks out like a sore thumb. But Dáil deputy Adams witnessed its energising effect on young people in the Republic’s 2015 referendum.
The Sinn Féin president is approaching 70, and setting Stormont a test to span the generations.