The message Michelle O’Neill has brought to Washington this week does not make sense.
The optics of the trip make sense, of course. Sinn Féin’s deputy leader can present herself as de facto first minister, welcomed on the international stage while the DUP sulks at home.
The timing is also perfect. Rishi Sunak is making his first official visit to the United States. O’Neill says she will urge those meeting the British prime minister to prioritise restoring Stormont.
Yet what she is saying about restoration is confused and contradictory. The first part of O’Neill’s message is that London has shown “no sense of urgency”.
“The British government’s response to this boycott of our political institutions is lax, complacent and irresponsible,” she declared in a statement just before her departure.
There have been three prime ministers since the DUP withdrew its first minister 17 months ago. Whatever else might be said of their responses, none have been complacent and all have demonstrated urgency. Boris Johnson and Liz Truss rushed a Bill to disapply the protocol, setting the DUP short timelines to return to the assembly and executive. Truss appointed the current northern secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, who has devised what has been called a “punishment budget” – the DUP calls it “blackmail”. Sunak negotiated the Windsor Framework, with its Stormont brake.
All this effort has been focused on getting the DUP back to work. It has been accompanied by Downing Street’s patience unmistakably running out.
The budget tactic could be called irresponsible but it is not, as O’Neill describes it, a case of the DUP boycott leaving Northern Ireland “at the mercy of savage and heartless Tory cuts”. This is back to front. The DUP is being threatened with blame for cuts if it does not end its boycott.
The second part of O’Neill’s message is that the US administration should “press” London to restore Stormont. Washington already thinks it did this by pressing Sunak to agree the Windsor Framework. Sinn Féin might ask its American hosts to try again but this is futile without some idea of how London might pass that pressure onto the DUP.
The implication is that London should just get its unionist dupes under control, somehow. This is antiquated republican thinking, all the more absurd because London really is shaking a stick at the DUP
O’Neill has no suggestions. She says the US should remind Britain to work “in partnership” with the Irish Government but there is no hint in her statements of threatening the DUP with joint authority – only a standard appeal to operate all the institutions of the Belfast Agreement.
The implication is that London should just get its unionist dupes under control, somehow. This is antiquated republican thinking, all the more absurd because London really is shaking a stick at the DUP, yet Sinn Féin refuses to acknowledge it.
O’Neill’s contradictions cannot be dismissed as waffle for a select Irish-American audience. The party is promoting her Washington statements widely and has been using the “no urgency” line separately in Northern Ireland for weeks, mainly to claim the punishment budget is not really about forcing the DUP back to work.
It clearly is about forcing the DUP back to work, however. And there was no comparable punishment when Sinn Féin boycotted Stormont for three years. Theresa May’s government refused to introduce formal direct rule and helped legislate for abortion and same-sex marriage at Westminster, all to mollify republicans, despite depending on a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the DUP.
Sinn Féin might be struggling to fit current events into the Irish republican world view, where unionists might be bad but Britain is always worse and a British Tory government is the worst thing of all. O’Neill would certainly confuse many Americans if she said London was trying to help her become first minister.
But the most obvious effect of her rhetorical contortions is avoiding the subject of Stormont reform – the only way devolution can be restored without the DUP’s full co-operation. After two lengthy boycotts by the two largest parties, it requires an effort not to raise the rules of mandatory coalition when discussing Stormont’s return.
Before heading to Washington, O’Neill said: “The British government by its inaction cannot give the DUP a veto over the operation of the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement.”
Again, this was back to front. The agreement gives the DUP a veto, which the British government has not taken away.
Dublin agrees with London that devolution should be restored under existing rules, with reform negotiated afterwards. Alliance wants a tweak to the rules now to get Stormont up and running, without the DUP if necessary. Sinn Féin opposes reform, leading to suspicions it plans to use the veto in future.
This debate dominated politics for much of the past year, between interruptions for the Windsor Framework and the council election. It appears that Sinn Féin wants to change the subject, and very much does not want this conversation crossing the Atlantic.