Sinn Féin continues its irresponsible Stormont nonsense
Northern unionists are ready to do a deal, but SF is engaged in a dangerous self-indulgence
Sinn Féin’s leader in the North Michelle O’Neill. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Patience is running out with Sinn Féin’s Stormont nonsense. What began in January with understandable grievances has become transparently cynical opportunism. It is no exaggeration to say lives have been put at risk – a UK-wide bowel cancer screening programme cannot be extended to Northern Ireland because there is no minister for health to sign it off. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin has held an event in Derry to discuss “the disastrous impact Brexit will have on the health service”.
The party’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill – who was minister for health before January’s Stormont walk-out – indulged in more posturing on Monday by calling for all-party talks to begin a week early, on August 28th.
DUP former minister Simon Hamilton denounced this as “a stunt”. Such a response to an apparent republican olive branch would have sounded arrogant several months ago. Now it chimes with the wider mood – the political editor of the Irish News concurred with Hamilton’s assessment.
Bringing the talks forward by one week would be meaningless and even counter-productive while their format is still being pinned down. Secretary of state James Brokenshire met Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney on Tuesday to discuss arrangements.
Hamilton is the most moderate of senior DUP figures, making him an interesting choice to deliver the DUP’s official rebuke. It reflects an appreciation that party leader Arlene Foster remains toxic to nationalists. She has failed to find the tone that might start undoing all the damage she has unquestionably caused.
However, Hamilton’s remarks also reflect DUP confidence in its improved terms of political trade. Before June’s UK general election, the unionist party was plainly desperate to restore devolution and had begun preparing supporters for a major climb-down.
Liability vs prop
In the weeks after the election, which made the DUP Westminster kingmaker, triumph turned to doubt and serious discomfort. The new British government, certainly under Theresa May, seemed too fragile to last.
The DUP was monstered by the British press and received such ridicule and contempt from the public and Tory backbenchers that it looked more like a liability than a prop.
Things feel very different a few months on. Westminster has acclimatised to its precarious balance – it is hardly unusual for Northern Ireland MPs to prove decisive in the commons. May might go sooner rather than later but there is unlikely to be another general election for at least two years. Almost as significantly for the DUP, the British press and public has already forgotten about it.
Everyone knows the DUP would concede in a heartbeat, so Sinn Féin’s absolutism looks increasingly self-indulgent
A ruling in Belfast High Court last week on same-sex marriage, finding it should be left to Stormont, was reported nationally but failed to produce any of the anti-unionist opprobrium that would have been guaranteed earlier this summer.
So the DUP can be confident of relevance and influence, even without Stormont, right up until 2019.
That is well-understood to be the maximum timeframe for Sinn Féin stalling. Hardliners in the republican movement have argued against restoring devolution before an Irish general election, probably next summer, or Brexit the following spring, in order to keep unionism marginalised and disorientated.
The DUP had good reason to fear such a strategy until recently, but now it can imagine sticking it out – and sticking it to republicans as the cost of political limbo stacks up.
This is one form of “equality” O’Neill definitely does not want.
Hamilton made a particularly revealing remark in July, when discussing the prospects for talks.
“Sinn Féin can’t demand a 10-nil win,” he said.
Republicans make that demand by claiming they only want previous, unmet agreements to be honoured. In fact, Sinn Féin was technically outmanoeuvred on everything it says it was promised – “outsmarted agreements” would be a better term.
It is entirely legitimate for Sinn Féin to have lost patience with this and deployed its nuclear option of bringing down the executive. Now the DUP can withstand the fallout, however, the conventional rules of deal-making apply and a five-all draw would be the truly equal outcome. Because everyone knows the DUP would concede this in a heartbeat, Sinn Féin’s continued absolutism looks increasingly self-indulgent.
Northern Ireland is without a regional government but of course it is not ungoverned. The civil service ticks along on autopilot, helped by budget interventions from the Northern Ireland Office.
These have strayed beyond the Belfast Agreement, yet Sinn Féin has been unable to criticise them, as it offers no alternative but chaos. Precedents are slowly being set for de-facto direct rule.
This can only go on for so long before republicans are visibly marginalising themselves.
An escalation will occur in the autumn, if there is still no executive. The DUP-Tory Westminster deal includes £1 billion plus a committee of both parties to decide, in the absence of devolved ministers, how to spend it. The committee looks sufficiently like a replacement mini-executive for nationalists to have sought clarification.
It gives the DUP a tactical nuclear option – dangerous, and just small enough to use.