Newton Emerson: Growing paranoia over British passivity on North

Sinn Féin transforms from cynical wrecker of Stormont to genuine advocate of its return

Stormont has had a 12-month crisis and talks cycle for four of the past five years. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

Stormont has had a 12-month crisis and talks cycle for four of the past five years. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

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For Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, “the plates are shifting in Irish politics”.

But for Northern Secretary Karen Bradley, the plates are still set for dinner on Stormont’s Marie Celeste.

Leaked briefing notes to Bradley from the Northern Ireland Office, published this week by The Irish Times, confirm an unchanged British government position of wanting devolution restored but doing nothing in particular to bring it about, beyond continuing to pretend direct rule has not arrived in all but name.

The RHI inquiry has already served any inquiry’s basic function by producing too much detail for anyone to follow

People are becoming incredulous, or worse still, paranoid, at this interminable passivity. Government inaction is widely blamed on the DUP’s influence at Westminster, although London was just as passive throughout the six months of Stormont limbo before the DUP-Tory deal.

Since talks broke down between the DUP and Sinn Féin this February, the DUP has emerged as the obstruction to devolution, with Sinn Féin appearing keener to revive it. Yet before talks collapsed these positions were reversed, and that made no difference to London’s indifference.

Another attempt

The Northern Ireland Office still has a case for hands-off patience if the failure in February is seen as resetting the clock for another attempt. Stormont has had a 12-month crisis and talks cycle for four of the past five years.

Movement on this timescale has already been observed.

Two weeks ago, Sinn Féin called for a “radical new industrial strategy” for Northern Ireland “when the Executive is restored”. This was seen as a notable repositioning exercise, creating a left/right as opposed to orange/green argument with the DUP and giving republicans a grown-up reason to get back to work.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has embarked on a sudden charm offensive, meeting GAA fans, gay rights groups and minority faiths. A cynic might say she has little else to do. Unionist rivals say she is preparing for a new set of talks with Sinn Féin in September – the traditional start of the talking season, after the summer marching season.

In the meantime, with effectively no communication between both parties, Sinn Féin has another suspicion – that Foster’s leadership is on the line. If a coup is coming the likeliest date would be the DUP’s annual conference, usually held in late autumn, although some republicans think Foster could be deposed earlier due to the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry.

This is almost certainly wishful thinking on Sinn Féin’s part – the inquiry has already served any inquiry’s basic function by producing too much detail for anyone to follow.

Still, the reason for Sinn Féin’s wishfulness is revealing -– it is hoping for Foster’s departure to make the restoration of Stormont easier. When Sinn Féin walked out of the Executive 18 months ago its only red line was that Foster should stand down as first minister. It dropped that demand to try and reach February’s abortive deal, which Foster proved unable to sell. So now it would like a new DUP leader for a new deal – only this time that is a quiet preference, not an aggressive precondition.

This all confirms Sinn Féin’s transformation from cynical wrecker of Stormont to genuine advocate of its return –- a sharp change evident at the start of this year, just before Gerry Adams handed the party presidency over to Mary Lou McDonald.

Addressing Sinn Féin’s annual conference in Belfast last weekend, McDonald expressed the desire to be in government on both sides of the Border – a long-standing policy, whose context has been transformed by the real, imminent prospect of holding Southern office. With speculation about an Irish general election in the autumn, Sinn Féin is not just sincere about returning to Stormont but in something of a hurry.

How Brexit pans out

Parts of the DUP are not convinced about this, however, believing Sinn Féin wants to see how Brexit pans out before restoring devolution.

This looks like an ingrained suspicion – exploiting Brexit has always been the DUP’s explanation for why Sinn Féin left the Executive. Even if that theory is true, it is redundant now Sinn Féin clearly wants back in.

The Brexit timetable retains the potential to delay or damage Stormont talks, as happened repeatedly in the months leading up to February.

Agreements with Brussels that were meant to be pinned down this month have been pushed back to the end of the year, and a showdown is coming with parliament over the final Brexit deal that could cause the government to collapse and end the DUP’s Westminster influence.

That prospect, while still remote, should put the DUP in more of a hurry.

But haste is relative in Northern Ireland, where even a year is not a long time in politics. Bradley could convene immediate talks, bring in an international chairman, set binding deadlines, discuss a bigger role for Dublin or take any number of assertive initiatives.

She can just as legitimately decide we have enough on our plate.

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