Latest Adams 'crisis' needs a Tory bogeyman
How will Sinn Féin keep ‘disrespect’ row alive with no Executive to be disrespected in?
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill with Gerry Adams. The DUP likes to portray Adams as a bogeyman pulling O’Neill’s strings – an electoral scare-tactic that works because it is obviously true. Photograph: Getty Images
The DUP believes Gerry Adams has ruled out an early return to Stormont after Thursday’s Assembly election.
It had been thought for weeks that Sinn Féin had no settled view on the matter but Adams was not expected to make a decision until after the votes were counted.
Now a DUP representative has told the Belfast Telegraph: “It would appear [Northern leader] Michelle O’Neill, who was hopeful of getting devolution up and running just a few days ago, has been overruled by Gerry Adams and his plan to hand over powers to the Conservative government.”
This statement fits in with the DUP’s portrayal of Adams as a bogeyman pulling O’Neill’s strings – an electoral scare-tactic that works because it is obviously true.
Trying to scare people with “the Conservative government” is a trickier proposition. If devolution is interrupted for more than a couple of months there will have to be some form of direct rule, or “Brits in”, as the DUP mockingly calls it. republicans and nationalists would find this aggravating – but that does Sinn Féin no harm.
Brinkmanship politicianAdams is a brinkmanship politician. For almost three decades he has regularly taken his peace process ball away and kicked it up in the air – sometimes with no clearer goal than to see where it lands.
The current rationale for giving Stormont a hard kick into the long grass is to see how Brexit, an Irish general election and a second Scottish independence referendum might play out.
The danger of doing this for any length of time is that it takes you out of the game. Adams has always avoided sidelining himself before by embroiling everyone in a crisis only Sinn Féin’s involvement can solve. Decommissioning, disbandment, recognition of policing and welfare reform have been the four main examples under devolution.
This latest crisis is predicated on lack of DUP “respect” – an umbrella concept for all the disappointments and grievances of the republican base.
It would be difficult enough to sustain such a huff with Stormont in operation. Sinn Féin tried that in 2008, when Peter Robinson became DUP first minister, by boycotting the Executive over some long-forgotten point on policing. Republicans had to slink back in six months later, with their tails between their legs, after Robinson just laughed and carried on without them.
How much harder will it be to maintain a crisis of disrespect with no Executive to be disrespected in?
This is where the big bad Tories come in. All four previous interruptions of devolution happened under New Labour, which could scarcely be portrayed as an enemy of the peace process. By contrast, the Conservatives have such pantomime villain status among nationalists and republicans that their mere presence in Stormont Castle will be certain to antagonise. Tory direct rule policies will be the new disrespect and Sinn Féin will suffer little for making “Brits in” a necessity – to the republican mind, the Brits are ultimately responsible for everything.
Success is not guaranteed for Adams, however. The British government seems determined to avoid full direct rule, even in the medium term. It is more likely to leave the Assembly running and the Executive mothballed, stepping in only to pass this year’s budget.
Hands-off approachThe welfare reform crisis showed what happens when the Tories take a hands-off approach. For three years from 2012, during which three rounds of crisis talks were held, Adams blocked Stormont budgets until the DUP boycotted the Executive. Throughout this period, every appeal for help to prime minister David Cameron was referred to his secretary of state Theresa Villiers, who simply repeated a homily about wanting local parties to reach agreement.
So eventually they did – with Sinn Féin surrendering on every point, then handing welfare powers back to London for a year because it did not have the guts to enact its own deal. If a Tory bogeyman could not be conjured up over the emotive issue of social security benefits, can it really be invoked over an Irish language act and a bill of rights – the dusty old issues Adams is now dumping on Number 10’s doorstep?
Brexit may prove a more fruitful illustration of Tory arrogance, or maybe not. Legally baseless hysteria about the destruction of the peace process could end up sounding rather eccentric. From those about to bring down Stormont, it already sounds opportunistic.
Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, is if anything even more hands-off with Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, May’s Secretary of State James Brokenshire – a member of her inner circle – has taken a partisan stance on Troubles legacy cases, by questioning the investigation of former British soldiers.
This is a serious, needless faux pas on a key issue in post-election talks. May would be wise to replace Brokenshire with some disposable Tory remainer too wet to say a word. Then Sinn Féin would have surprisingly little to complain about. For Adams, that really would be a crisis.