Unionist hawks within Arlene Foster’s Democratic Unionists have won the day over Sinn Fein’s demand for an Irish Language Act – but the price is to bring Northern Ireland back to 1972 when the original Stormont Parliament was axed.
In spite of all the positive mood noises this week, including visits to the talks from both the British and Irish premiers, St Valentine’s Day did not bring the ‘political love-in’ which many had hoped for – namely a deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein leading to a restoration of a devolved power-sharing Executive.
The future for government in Northern Ireland is now nightmarishly simple – Stormont has finally fallen, and some form of Direct Rule from Westminster is now inevitable – and that’s even before people worry about the impact of either a hard or soft Brexit on the island of Ireland.
The latest failure of talks to resolve the Stormont stalemate which has plagued Northern Ireland since January 2017 will initially signal a series of heated exchanges as the traditional ‘blame game’ – dominated by the spin doctors – shifts into top gear.
Ironically, in spite of all the positive utterances at the start of the week urging the DUP and Sinn Fein to ‘seal the deal’, the lack of a devolved government at Belfast’s Parliament Buildings actually suits the agendas of both the ‘Big Two’ parties at Stormont.
With former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams stepping down from the leadership of the party – a role he held for almost 40 years – and a new female leadership with no links to the Provisional IRA, Sinn Fein has clearly signalled that its Irish unity project lies with gaining power in the Irish Republic.
Dublin TD Mary Lou McDonald, a former MEP, is the new Sinn Fein president, and Northern Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill MLA is the new vice president. Neither has IRA convictions. Sinn Fein now wants to show it is a truly democratic republican party, not a puppet apologist for IRA terrorism.
Sinn Fein has already amended its constitution allowing TDs – following the expected Southern general election in the Republic later this year – to become part of a minority coalition government with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.
Sinn Fein is now clear of the opinion that the Dublin government must have a role in not just representing nationalists, but also a clear say in the joint running of Northern Ireland now that Stormont has formally collapsed.
The main plank for this would be the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. While Dublin’s role in this specific Conference is merely recommendation-making, Sinn Fein would want this upgraded if it became a minority Dail partner to decision-making powers. Effectively, this could allow Sinn Fein to attempt to bring about Irish unity via the back door of the Dail rather than the front door of Stormont.
Likewise, for the DUP, although it has traditionally been a devolutionist movement especially during the late Ian Paisley senior era, the unique relationship which the party’s 10 MPs enjoy in the Commons propping up the minority Conservative Government has given the DUP the new political cloak of integration – and the party now resembles the pro-integrationist Ulster Unionist Party of the late 1980s.
Similarly, Sinn Fein still refuses to take its Commons seats, therefore, to the DUP, Sinn Fein is effectively muted at Westminster when it comes to key Commons votes.
The DUP’s Westminster team has become a very powerful lobby within the party, and if the Northern Ireland Secretary of State has to implement Direct Rule, the DUP will be pushing to have some of its MPs appointed as Northern Ireland Office ministers.
On a parallel point, one clear advantage which both Sinn Fein and the DUP can take from the collapse of Stormont talks is that it almost certainly spells an end to any electoral comeback by their respective rivals, the moderate nationalist SDLP and the UUP.
Electorally, the attention will now turn to next year’s local government elections in which Sinn Fein and the DUP will want to inflict the same damage on the SDLP and UUP as they did in the 2017 Westminster General Election when both the SDLP and UUP lost all their Commons seats.
Of the three smaller parties – UUP, SDLP and Alliance, only the latter seemingly has the potential to hold the centre ground in future polls.
While the DUP and Sinn Fein can safely indulge in a game of political ping-pong regarding the blame game as to who is responsible for the collapse of the talks, long-term danger lurks for both parties.
For Unionism, it is the prospect that any future form of Direct Rule could include a small dose of joint authority with Dublin on some issues.
For Sinn Fein, the ever-looming economic threat posed by Brexit could force the Irish Republic into negotiating a closer political relationship with the United Kingdom to protect the financial economy of Ireland as a geographical island.
In the short-term Sinn Fein can say it wanted to do a deal with the DUP, a deal which included a stand-alone Irish Language Act, but in the end the DUP could not bring the traditional fundamentalists within the party to swallow such an Act.
Likewise, the DUP can say it held firm in not caving into Sinn Fein demands for such an Irish Language Act.
The bottom line is, the hawks on both sides won over the Irish language. Republican hardliners maintained their insistence there must be an Act for the Irish language; Unionist hawks insisted there would be no such Act. The ghosts of 1972 have returned to haunt the Stormont corridors in 2018.
The real worry is that it could take another political generation to pass until there is a devolved parliament at Stormont once again.