Northern Ireland: divining Sinn Féin’s intentions

Party’s decisions will have ramifications in both parts of the island

The Westminster elections have taken the spotlight off the political stalemate in Northern Ireland and parties there won't get down to talking about the restoration of the power sharing executive until the results are declared. Whether there is any chance of the talks succeeding by the latest deadline of June 29th is an open question.

At this stage it boils down to whether Sinn Féin is genuinely interested in doing a deal to get the Northern institutions up and running again or whether its strategy is to abandon the Belfast Agreement in pursuit of its united Ireland agenda. That question will not be answered until the votes are in and the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin have made an assessment of where their best interests lie.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has adopted a noticeably more conciliatory approach during the current election campaign, using a few words of Irish during a visit to a Catholic school in Newry and penning an opinion piece suggesting a common approach to Brexit. The depressing thing is that just as the DUP line has softened, the Sinn Féin position appears to have hardened with the nationalist rhetoric being ratcheted up across a range of issues. Hopefully this is nothing more than electioneering and the real business of negotiation will begin when the campaigning is over.

It is not as if any of the issues being raised have not already been covered in the Stormont House and Fresh Start agreements which have their origins in the Haas process. The bottom line is that the foundations for an agreement are already in place and all it will take is a political commitment by Sinn Féin and the DUP to make the necessary compromises to get the executive up and running again.

Although the DUP is showing signs of a willingness to engage, the noises coming from Sinn Féin are less positive and there are doubts about the party’s real intentions. One widely held view is that it has given up on wanting to exercise power in the North on the basis that it is damaging its strategy of building support in the Republic. The party has certainly been stung by accusations from its opponents in the Dáil that it is willing to implement policies in the North that it vehemently opposes south of the border.

One way of putting an end to such taunts would be to avoid going back to power sharing. That would trigger direct rule from Westminster and would allow the party to adopt a populist anti-government strategy on both sides of the border. The other side of the coin, though, is that if it shows itself incapable of exercising power in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin’s credibility as a potential party of government in the Republic will suffer.

One way or another, it has decisions to make which will have ramifications in both parts of the island.