What happens if Sinn Féin makes Northern Ireland work? We may be about to find out. Stormont could return in months if not weeks, with a republican first minister. A wave of international goodwill and investment has been promised to show the Windsor framework brings stability and unique advantages. That could be enough to deliver improvements to devolution and the economy, whatever the framework’s limitations.
So Sinn Féin is getting in front to stake its claim on success.
Unionists, Alliance and the SDLP have all used the slogan “make Northern Ireland work”. They consider that aim a prerequisite for every constitutional aspiration.
Sinn Féin has never quite concurred but the slogan it is using instead, “Make politics work”, is an allusion lost on nobody.
Rhetoric is being finessed and there is a policy plan to go with it. Sinn Féin campaigned in last May’s assembly election for a new industrial strategy and further devolution of tax and spending powers. The party has indicated it will take the Department for the Economy, a DUP fiefdom it has never held before. First pick of departments is a significant benefit of being Stormont’s largest party.
Staking a claim to success while setting doubts and ideological concerns aside might not seem like a daring or original act of leadership, but it is more than Jeffrey Donaldson can manage
Last week, deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said her three priorities as first minister would be sorting out Stormont’s troubled business development agency, Invest NI, plus improving skills and childcare, both key to productivity.
This is a sensible, coherent set of measures to address stubborn economic problems and capitalise on the Windsor framework. Since the framework was agreed, O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald, the party leader, have pointedly lauded “dual-market access”, an advantage that is certainly overblown and would probably disappear in a united Ireland. They have clearly decided those are details for another day.
Staking a claim to success while setting doubts and ideological concerns aside might not seem like a daring or original act of leadership, but it is more than Jeffrey Donaldson can manage.
The DUP leader’s plan, well-signalled to his party and its supporters, has been to claim credit for changes to the protocol through unionist pressure, culminating in the boycott of Stormont.
Change has now been delivered and the UK government is prepared to play along with the DUP’s narrative. Yet Donaldson is hesitating, more concerned with covering a retreat than seizing a chance to move forward. The DUP may return to Stormont in a sulk, without endorsing the Windsor framework, giving Sinn Féin a clear run at a positive platform. Once again unionism is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
While Sinn Féin may claim it has long tried to make politics work, different interpretations of its recent past are available. Its three-year boycott of Stormont, eventually punished by the electorate, was followed by repeated sabotage during the pandemic.
Even where the party enthusiastically supports the institutions of the Belfast Agreement and all the goals of good government, this is difficult to separate from its furious hostility to the existence of Northern Ireland – a place it cannot bring itself to name.
If that hostility has to be toned down to promote the success of a Sinn Féin-led Executive, the message could find a ready audience. Relentless negativity is wearying even for those with a love-hate relationship with their home, and regional identity and pride are strong across the northern population. The “failed statelet” gloom republicans push at every turn bears no relation to most people’s lives. The public wants devolution to work, despite cynicism about Stormont’s record, and can respond powerfully to executive harmony. There must be widespread exhaustion with the DUP, to the point where many unionists might welcome a change of mood, even if they cannot actively welcome Sinn Féin at the helm.
The republican objection in principle to making Northern Ireland work is that it cannot work. The objection in practice is that it might work, entrenching the status quo
For republicans, any change must still serve a united Ireland. Sinn Féin can conflate that goal with its own success, using Stormont to grow its vote in the North and demonstrate its fitness for office in the South. Talking up the Northern Irish economy can answer concerns in the Republic about the cost of unification. Although there is no prospect of a Border poll, or the Republic ever voting no, Sinn Féin is still at risk of being associated with an enormous, looming bill.
The republican objection in principle to making Northern Ireland work is that it cannot work. The objection in practice is that it might work, entrenching the status quo. That is a gamble Sinn Féin must now take, unless it wants its time in office to be seen as a failure.
Presumably, it will end in failure regardless. The economy will disappoint, or powersharing will stumble for reasons that cannot be blamed entirely on unionism, or the political pendulum will simply swing back as it almost always does.
But Sinn Féin really has no other choice. Unlike the DUP, at least it knows to embrace it.