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Newton Emerson: Funeral raises questions over how much SF president McDonald is in charge

North’s parties are tired of constantly second-guessing shadowy forces behind Sinn Féin

Stormont has rumbled through its crisis over last week’s IRA funeral and emerged in a more realistic condition.

The warming relationship between DUP First Minister Arlene Foster and her Sinn Féin opposite number Michelle O'Neill is back to frosty formality. Their double act had been the defining novelty of the newly restored Executive. They sustained their show of civility for three months, to evident public approval, even if there was cynicism about its true depth. Its loss is a pity but it was never going to survive any serious bump in the road and there is always the prospect it can be rebuilt on a more plausible footing.

While the personal factor matters at the top in politics, authority matters more.

The funeral raised questions about how much Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald is ultimately in charge. O’Neill’s position as vice-president looks distinctly second tier. Everyone has always been aware of this but last week’s reminder was brutal: there were times when the Deputy First Minister appeared genuinely contrite, yet still in need of permission to stop talking nonsense.


The real novelty of the restored Stormont is that its Sinn Féin leader is no longer Martin McGuinness, who was unquestionably at the top of the republican movement.

British ministers and officials used to joke that when McGuinness excused himself to talk to the IRA, he went to look in the bathroom mirror.

Not in the IRA

It would be perverse to complain that O’Neill is not in the IRA but there are signs other Stormont parties find it confusing and frustrating to be constantly second-guessing shadowy forces.

Calls over the past week for O’Neill and other Sinn Féin figures to stand down were made by every other party in the Executive, beginning with the UUP and Alliance, closely followed by the SDLP, with the DUP dragged along after initially asking for an apology.

All four parties backed a DUP Assembly motion this Tuesday for an apology, adding separately that resignations are still warranted.

This unusual show of cross-community solidarity was driven by how much Sinn Féin has exasperated its Executive partners throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

In the first month around lockdown, Sinn Féin took its own public positions on school and workplace closures, claimed to have placed a non-existent PPE order with China and undermined the UUP health minister. A truce was then declared, fronted by O'Neill and Foster, but differences continued behind the scenes.

During the truce, Foster told an interviewer an esprit de corps had developed in the Executive because parties were meeting so often. It seems that spirit was everyone else versus Sinn Féin.

The old arrogance

This is unsustainable, however much unionists might enjoy it. It will tempt some into thinking mandatory coalition can become optional. It also brought a flash of the old arrogance from Foster, although only in the final run-up to Tuesday’s vote. The DUP leader has otherwise been praised for her restraint.

A notable feature of the past week was the certainty that Stormont would not collapse.

Reforms brought in by January’s New Decade, New Approach deal may have helped. Stormont no longer falls immediately if one of the main parties walks out – all other ministers remain in office for six months.

A party leaders’ forum, intended as a safe space to talk disputes through, was convened last Friday

Sinn Féin’s disregard for rules and accountability echoed the behaviour of the DUP before the Renewable Heat Incentive but few people believed either party would quit this time. The DUP badly needs devolution to work, hence its reluctance to demand O’Neill’s resignation.

Sinn Féin does not want to trigger an Assembly election before it has seen off the Alliance surge and a modest revival of the SDLP. Both smaller parties are in combative form, hence their demands for O’Neill’s resignation.

Above all, Sinn Féin wants to prove to the Republic it can govern. It needs to keep a Northern demonstration of this going until at least the next Irish general election, which could occur suddenly at any point in the next five years. That is a lengthy guarantee of participation by Northern Ireland’s standards.

IRA links

Another novel feature of the restored Stormont is southern sensitivity to IRA links the North became jaded to years ago.

Scrutiny in the Republic seems to have nudged Sinn Féin towards more conciliatory language on the funeral, beginning last Friday with a statement from McDonald.

Paramilitary imagery at the funeral, much noted in Dublin, was barely commented on in Belfast. An IRA send-off in a Sinn Féin heartland was what it was – the issue was Ministers breaking social distancing regulations.

There was considerable disquiet at Belfast City Council handing a crematorium over to republican "stewarding", but Stormont was handed over at the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.

If the Republic wants to avoid heading the same way, it has up to any point in the next five years to do something about it.