Do Sinn Féin and DUP really want a stable Stormont?
Powersharing rules must ensure a party walkout does not bring down Stormont
Tánaiste Simon Coveney: has been clear that London and Dublin cannot enforce workable reforms over the DUP and Sinn Féin’s head. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Simon Coveney says it is “not an unreasonable ask from the DUP” for Stormont to be restored on a “more sustainable” basis.
The comments by the Tánaiste, in an interview with this newspaper last week, have been seen as an olive branch to unionists.
The Democratic Unionist Party has complained there is little point restoring devolution if Sinn Féin can walk away the next time it feels thwarted or sees a chance to stir the pot.
The clearest way for a future executive to survive this is for the rules of powersharing to be changed, so that a walkout by one of the two main parties does not cause Stormont to collapse. This is what Coveney’s remarks have been widely interpreted to mean – but presenting such a change as a concession to the DUP is a serious mistake, for two reasons.
First, it guarantees Sinn Féin will not agree to it; and second, republican opportunism is not the only threat to devolution.
In the history of the Belfast Agreement, the DUP has most often played the politics of the empty chair. It walked out of the talks before the 1998 agreement and would not lead an executive with Sinn Féin until rule changes had been agreed at St Andrews in 2006.
Since then, Sinn Féin has engaged in several episodes of what might be called industrial action – most notably a three-year go-slow from 2012 over welfare reform. However, the only threat of withdrawal came from DUP former leader Peter Robinson. In 2015, he told the British government he would resign and bring Stormont down over the welfare reform deadlock. Crisis turned to farce when London called the DUP’s bluff and unionist ministers began resigning in rotation to save face while keeping their jobs – the so-called “hokey cokey”. As a result, the perception of which party is likelier to stomp out of Stormont has reversed, with republicans now seen as the chair-vacaters.
Yet, in the long run, a larger question hangs over the DUP’s commitment to the executive: would it remain in office if Sinn Féin took the post of first minister?
The DUP has always declined to answer that question, preferring to say the scenario is not on the cards. But since last March’s assembly election, when Sinn Féin came within 1,100 votes of the top spot, the prospect of a republican first minister has become entirely possible, while the chance of a DUP leader serving as deputy first minister remains in doubt.
The positions of first and deputy first minister are equal in all but title. They were originally to have the same title of “joint first minister”, before the Ulster Unionist Party – the main party of unionism at the time of the Belfast Agreement – insisted on drawing a distinction between the larger unionist and smaller nationalist communities.
At St Andrews, the DUP turned this psychological crutch into a weapon. New rules on appointing the first and deputy first ministers were the only significant changes to Stormont introduced by the 2006 deal. This transformed the contest for the first minister’s post from a race between the unionist and nationalist blocs overall into a race to be the largest party. Sinn Féin and the DUP then used that to crush their smaller rivals in the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). For the DUP, beating Sinn Féin also became intrinsic to “winning” and to covering its right flank against hardliners. Sinn Féin’s repeated offer to revive the title of “joint first ministers” was spurned, most recently in 2016, when the office of both ministers was renamed but their titles were retained.
Prickly unionist pride has reached the point where it is all too plausible to imagine the DUP walking out rather than occupying a position it has damned to its electorate as playing second fiddle to Sinn Féin.
But what if walking out did not bring the executive down? Would the DUP really leave republicans to govern Northern Ireland alone?
This might seem to be a reason why the DUP would join Sinn Féin in not agreeing to Coveney’s implied rule changes – and the Tánaiste has been clear that London and Dublin cannot enforce workable reforms over the DUP and Sinn Féin’s head.
With both parties representing two-thirds of their respective communities, a Stormont executive lacking either could seem dangerously illegitimate.
What these concerns overlook is that Sinn Féin and the DUP still want Stormont to work, as long as they can stitch it and themselves up into a mutually acceptable arrangement. Denying each other their vetoes to collapse devolution could simply be seen by both parties as a new equilibrium of the zero sum game. But they will obviously not see it that way – or more to the point, be able to sell it as such – if the Irish Government presents it as a unionist victory.