Newton Emerson: Unionists’ suspicions do not match reality

Gerry Adams may relish playing crisis politics, but he did not escalate ‘cash for ash’ row

Gerry Adams has strongly criticised the DUP ahead of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections saying 'the failure in this case is fairly and squarely with the DUP.'


Gerry Adams isn’t one to let a good crisis go to waste.

So adept is the Sinn Féin president at milking them, he has often been accused of causing them. That is the claim being laid against him now by unionists, with suspicions spreading beyond the DUP.

Lord Empey, chair and former leader of the UUP, says Northern Ireland’s stability is being deliberately threatened by “a Sinn Féin with Mr Adams back at the wheel.”

There is some evidence that Sinn Féin has been on an election footing since mid-December, when it advised Arlene Foster to step down as first minister during any investigation into the “cash for ash” Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal.

This coincided with Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister, falling ill, as well as an escalation of the scandal after Foster gave a disastrous interview to the BBC.

At this point, gearing up for an election may have been no more than wise preparedness.

For the preceding two months of the RHI media storm, Sinn Féin was willing to settle for a limited investigation, despite ridicule from its nationalist opponents.

The party was still struggling to give some cover to an ungrateful Foster as recently as January 6th, when it published inquiry proposals that would have obliged her to step down for a mere four weeks.

Foster accepted all of Sinn Féin’s terms except for the brief recusal, although it was clearly the minimum required to spare republican blushes and would have promptly solved everything.

By that point, Sinn Féin’s own members were livid with frustration – as witnessed by the media at a party meeting in west Belfast the next day, which is when Adams entered the frame.

The Sinn Féin president addressed the meeting with a passive-aggressive speech listing a decade of republican grievances and warning that McGuinness would resign if “respect” and “equality” were not forthcoming.

Storming north

When the deputy first minister did indeed resign two days later, it could have been seen as a case of the malevolent Adams storming north to turn a drama into a crisis, then turn a crisis into a wish list.

But is it plausible that Sinn Féin flipped in the space of three weeks, from desperately trying to save the Executive to cynically plotting to wreck it?

The mistake in this theory is assuming that Gerry Adams has not always been at the wheel.

Day-to-day work at Stormont was devolved to McGuinness but, as the interminable welfare reform crisis showed, strategic decisions are made by “the Dublin leadership” – in practice, the TD for Louth.

Some DUP figures have implied a plot going back months. In this theory, Sinn Féin had grown unhappy with its choice of ministries, so used the RHI fiasco to goad Foster into providing it with an excuse to walk away.

If that is the case, why did the DUP leader keep stumbling doggedly into such an elaborate trap?

The likeliest explanation for Stormont’s collapse is the one that transpired before our eyes. DUP stubbornness and the anger of the republican base forced Adams to withdraw McGuinness from the Executive.

As that was going to cause another crisis anyway, Adams decided to throw in everything, including the kitchen sink.

What mainly makes this crisis-and-talks cycle unlike its many predecessors is that McGuinness is leaving the Stormont stage, pushing Adams to the fore, which will mean a more petulant tone.

McGuinness has been Sinn Féin’s lead minister on the Executive throughout its 18 on-off years. Adams was only ever a backbencher.

That was presumably to signal his contempt for the transitional partitionist assembly, which still shines unmistakably through.

The DUP can hardly complain about this, however, when what really turned the RHI drama into a crisis was the tone of its own leader.

Election returns

Collapsing Stormont may be an understandable move, but the question remains as to whether it is a good one.

An election will almost certainly return the DUP as the largest party, helped by the crisis atmosphere.

The kitchen sink will distract from the boiler, as Sinn Féin’s wish list pushes RHI down the agenda.

Delivering key items on that list, such as an Irish Language Act or same-sex marriage legislation, will require returning to Stormont, which makes walking away from it permanently a hollow threat.

Dragging talks out for more than a few weeks after the election will mean a period of direct rule, which is no threat to unionists at all.

This is why the SDLP has mentioned joint authority, though that is not on the cards.

Demonstrating that Northern Ireland is a “failed entity” is preaching to the republican choir and leads nowhere while the unionist choir is larger.

Adams insists there can be no return to Stormont under the status quo, but a cycle of crises led up to the status quo. How will one more turn of the wheel make any difference?

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