It’s Valentine’s Day this week, and the stalled Northern Ireland peace process will either witness a political ‘love-in’ and a return to a devolved Stormont Executive, or a political massacre, which will usher in Direct Rule from Westminster.
The political stalemate has lingered on for more than a year since the collapse of the DUP/Sinn Fein dominated Executive in January 2017. In spite of the current impasse, all sides in the debate agree that the lack of movement cannot continue indefinitely, especially with Brexit looming in just over 12 months time and no agreement on a hard or soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The weekend saw a new leadership emerge in Sinn Fein, with Southern TD Mary Lou McDonald installed as veteran republican Gerry Adams’ replacement as party president, and Northern leader Michelle O’Neill MLA as vice president.
While it was Sinn Fein’s deputy First Minister, the late Martin McGuinness, who triggered the Executive collapse by resigning last January, the election of a new perceived moderate Sinn Fein leadership with no connections to the IRA has fuelled speculation that a deal could actually be achieved this week.
DUP sources are equally quietly confident that a deal can be done in spite of seemingly wide gaps between these two main parties on tackling legacy issues from the conflict, same-sex marriage, and an Irish Language Act.
However, confidence is not so high among the three smaller parties – the centrist Alliance, the Ulster Unionists, and the moderate nationalist SDLP.
There is the very real danger that if an agreement is not reached this incoming week, the British Government will have no other choice but to implement some form of Direct Rule from Westminster, which could see a series of hard-hitting cuts and austerity measures introduced from London.
The Dublin government would also be demanding a consultative role at the very least should Direct Rule return. Internally in Northern Ireland, Direct Rule could see more powers being devolved to the so-called 11 super councils.
Unionist fears that a fully collapsed Assembly could herald in some for of joint authority over Northern Ireland by Dublin and London appear unfounded at this stage as such a measure would require the Southern government to contribute financially to the running of Northern Ireland.
In reality, the most the Dail can hope for is the power to make recommendations through the British-Irish and cross-border bodies.
However, speculation of a deal coming from the two main parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – may just be political posturing in preparation for a vitriolic blame game should the talks collapse.
Ironically, Direct Rule from Westminster would suit both parties. The DUP is locked into a Commons deal with the Tories. Sinn Fein does not allow its MPs to take their Commons seats as the party still adheres to its traditional abtentionist policy dating back to the party’s formation in 1905, thereby Sinn Fein votes are effectively meaningless and no danger to the DUP.
Under Direct Rule, the DUP would push strongly for the Northern Ireland Office to be staffed by Northern Ireland MPs and that would greatly benefit the party’s 10 MPs.
For Sinn Fein, with a Southern general election looming its main thrust is to increase its tally of sets in Leinster House – the Dublin parliament – so that it can become a minority partner in a coalition government with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.
Sinn Fein believes its goal of Irish unity lies through the Dail, not Stormont. Likewise, last year’s Westminster General Election saw both Sinn Fein and the DUP wipe their rivals, the UUP and SDLP, off the Commons map. The only place where both these parties could have any influence in the near future is a devolved Assembly. Direct Rule could effectively condemn both these smaller parties to the dustbin of history.
With local government elections scheduled for 2019, Direct Rule could also place the DUP and Sinn Fein in commanding positions to ‘mop up’ the majority of council seats in nationalism and unionism.
This incoming week will certainly be a feast or a famine in terms of a lasting Storming deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP. Only one fact is certain – neither government in Dublin and London is prepared to let the deadlock drift for another year. They both want a type of government sorted in Northern Ireland before Brexit talks reach a critical stage.