Denis Bradley: Speedy return of Stormont likely consequence of UK election
The DUP might be tempted to keep Sinn Fein in the cold but the need for an agreed position on Brexit will force compromise
Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill and party president Gerry Adams address journalists in Belfast, Northern Ireland, June 9, 2017. The party will be able to resist presure to take its seats in Westminster but there will be a growing unease amongst its supporters if the political institutions are not resurrected in the north. REUTERS/Liam McBurney
In the confusion of the general election result, I am convinced of one thing only: the restoration of the northern Assembly and Executive will be hastened. Sinn Fein’s continuing electoral gains has consequences. The party has successfully argued that it is right and proper to abstain from Westminster. It has felt, understood and eventually followed the mood of northern nationalism that the DUP and the British Government were ignoring of and disrespectful to nationalist feelings and aspirations. In two successive elections, they have embodied those feelings and have shepherded the voters into their fold. But those feelings and the electoral success have to have a home. They can’t be left to wander in a desert.
Sinn Fein are not going to take their seats in Westminster, even if the Labour Party make an attempt to form a government and are in need of Sinn Fein votes to do so. But now that it is becoming clear that there will be an agreement between the Tories and the DUP to form a government, the voices that are critical of Sinn Fein’s abstentionist’s stance will grow in number and volume. Sinn Fein will have no great difficulty in warding off those criticism but there will be a growing unease amongst its supporters if the political institutions are not resurrected in the north. To borrow a cliché, one abstention is understandable, two is careless.
The DUP would be tempted to turn the tables on Sinn Fein - the humiliation of having to plead with Sinn Fein to allow them to form a Stormont parliament is part of the reason for the increase in that party’s vote. They would be tempted to keep Sinn Fein out in the cold for a lengthy period while they sit at the centre of attention and power at Westminster. Their Westminster MPs might even argue that cause. But Brexit makes that very unlikely. Their voters think it important that the north have an official position in the negotiations and that is best achieved under the authority of a devolved government.
Many people will be shocked at what looks like the demise of the SDLP. The slow and steady decrease in electoral victories and votes may have reached a juncture where the very purpose and existence of the party is under scrutiny. In particular, to have lost Derry, John Hume’s stronghold, is something that few pundits and even punters were predicting. But the reasons for that continuing demise are not fully captured by the stark results.
Since the Good Friday Agreement, Irish nationalism, across the whole island, has allowed itself to be reduced to a critiquing and an opposing of Sinn Fein instead of better understanding and explaining to itself and to others the desirability and the possibility of Irish unity. There will always remain Irish nationalists who are unconvinced that Sinn Fein are the best proponents and providers of Irish unity but they continue to await a message and a messenger that is better. The SDLP have suffered because they have never properly answered that need. Those same people who feel and react to that vacuum have constantly looked to southern politics and southern politicians to answer those needs. But they continue to wait.
But the result of the election may have implications beyond the narrower preoccupations of the political parties. Ironically, the result of this election may have defused the more acute tensions about Brexit and its effects on this island. It was becoming hard to see how many of the competing demands were to be accommodated. Before the negotiations had even begun, hard attitudes were defining the need and desirability of hard borders. It was steadily turning itself into a clash about national identity, coupled with national economic opportunity.
The result may have defused the tensions. It has certainly defined the need for greater humility and flexibility. The English will need the Irish more than they would have expected. Sinn Fein and the DUP can now accommodate each other’s red lines. Theresa May’s failure to get a result that would have encouraged her strong leadership mantra and her determination to be the sole arbiter of the parameter and substance of the negotiations has now to give way to a more inclusive approach. Everybody needs a deal and everyone will have to compromise to achieve that deal. In politics, that is a far better place to start than the foolishness of promoting the falsehood that no deal is better than a bad deal.
Denis Bradley is a journalist and former vice-chairman of the police board for the Police Service of Northern Ireland.