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Newton Emerson: Why doesn’t Sinn Féin want Stormont reform?

Alliance’s proposal for opt-out coalition, where largest parties guaranteed place, gets around obstacles

05/11/2022 -NEWS- Royal Dublin Society,Ballsbridge, Dublin. Sinn Féin Ard Fheis 2022 Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD and Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O’Neill pictured after delivering her leader’s address. Photo: Tom Honan for The Irish Times.

Sinn Féin rather obviously avoided the subject of Stormont reform at its ardfheis last weekend. Reform is the solution everyone else is discussing and the need for it was implied – unwittingly, it seems – by prominent statements from the podium, yet there was not the slightest allusion to it in the 70 motions up for debate.

Party vice-president Michelle O’Neill garnered most headlines in Northern Ireland by claiming the DUP is using the Brexit protocol “as cover not to enter powersharing”.

“The real reason is because as an Irish nationalist I will be at the helm as First Minister and everybody knows it,” she said.

There is no doubt many nationalists believe this, for which the DUP has only itself to blame. Like the UUP, it refused to say it would nominate a Deputy First Minister before May’s assembly election and ran scared of TUV jibes of being “a bridesmaid” to Sinn Féin.

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Since the moment the polls closed, however, the DUP has insisted it will nominate a Deputy First Minister. There is no point saying this if the party does not mean it, as the TUV threat lingers and another election is a distinct possibility.

If Sinn Féin believes the DUP simply will not accept second place in the Executive, the only answer is reform of mandatory coalition. How else would devolution be sustained?

Although nobody’s anger should have a veto over politics, riling people for no good reason is irresponsible

O’Neill’s comments were echoed by Mary Lou McDonald. In her closing address, the Sinn Féin president demanded the British government “immediately bring clarity, a timetable for concluding negotiations with the European Union and the restoration of the Executive”.

The British government plainly wants the DUP back in the Executive at once. The bill to disapply the protocol came with a timetable for restoration by July but the DUP refused to follow it. There was a timetable agreed between London, Dublin and the Stormont parties for an election after devolution collapsed. Nobody wanted that when the Northern Secretary tried to implement it.

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So timetables are a deflection. If restoring the Executive means more than waiting for the DUP, then McDonald was demanding London either force the unionist party back to work or let everyone else to get back to work without it. The obvious way to do this is to reform mandatory coalition, or at least to threaten it.

The British and Irish governments have said reform should only be considered after the Executive is restored under its current rules. But both have spent months referring to the prospect of reform, with increasingly specific musings on its necessity, rationale and outline. There have been ministerial statements in the Commons and the Taoiseach has spoken twice on it in the Dáil.

For McDonald not to acknowledge this was glaring. Instead, she demanded “a plan B, one of partnership, one of a joint authority” and urged both governments “to be very sure that there is clarity”.

Powersharing can demonstrate the party’s suitability for government in the Republic while diffusing awkward responsibility

London could not have been clearer when it said last week joint authority would breach the Belfast Agreement and it would “never countenance” such an arrangement.

The Irish Government has been a little less forthright, with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney saying joint authority “is not our focus”.

Fine Gael in particular has decided it is not its job to debunk this fantasy, but a fantasy it remains. By falling back on it Sinn Féin encourages thoughts of Stormont’s demise and provokes loyalist outrage. Although nobody’s anger should have a veto over politics, riling people for no good reason is irresponsible.

Earlier this year O’Neill offered a valid argument for preserving the vetoes of the two largest parties: Stormont cannot work if one community’s main set of representatives are excluded.

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That argument loses much of its strength under Alliance’s proposal for opt-out mandatory coalition, where both largest parties would have a guaranteed place in the Executive but would not have to accept it.

Although Sinn Féin might think this would not work, failing to engage in the debate raises another possibility. What if Sinn Féin fears it would work?

Embedding the constitutional status quo is an understandable republican concern. A more conventional system at Stormont would also expose the dominant party in the Executive to the normal swings of the democratic pendulum: initial popularity in office, then disappointment, then loss of support.

There are many signs Sinn Féin wants Stormont to succeed in the coming years but as with everything else, this must be a means to the end of unification. Powersharing can demonstrate the party’s suitability for government in the Republic while diffusing awkward responsibility. Having to take tough choices on its own would spoil the illusion.

If that is not why Sinn Féin is in the preposterous position of defending the DUP’s veto, it needs to provide clarity on its objection to opt-out of mandatory coalition.