There is, as Sherlock Holmes noted, nothing so instructive as the “observation of trifles”. He could have added: “and nothing as destructive as trifles, if they remain unobserved.”
At some point very soon, either before or after an election, Sinn Fein and the DUP will embark upon yet another process of edge-of-the-cliff-seat-of-their-pants crisis talks. All such talks since the late 1990s have ended in a mixture of ambiguity, unfinished business, sticking plaster and undefined hope. We can’t bank on that this time.
And here’s where my ‘trifle’ comes into play. If the DUP and Sinn Fein (and, in fairness, it is true, too, of the UUP and SDLP) cannot even agree on the name of the place they govern together, then how can they be expected to reach agreement on the growing pile of ‘big ticket’ issues that divide them? ‘Northern Ireland’ has entirely separate meanings for unionism and nationalism; with many nationalists believing that the very name of the place gives it political/constitutional legitimacy it doesn’t deserve. Colum Eastwood argued recently that the Irish unity he desires must be built upon, ‘making Northern Ireland work’; but seemingly only in the context of making it easier to deliver unity and the end of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.
I’ve made this point before, but it is worth restating as we wait for the talks process to begin: If unionism and republicanism don’t agree on the name of the place they propose to govern together; don’t agree on the constitutional/geographical integrity of the place; and don’t agree on a common future, then how can they ever negotiate, let alone deliver, a credible agreement and a stable government? The obvious answer, I suppose, is that they haven’t. Every Executive — since the first one formed in December 1999 — has been dogged with long periods of incivility and crisis.
As I noted here a couple of weeks ago, there were reasons back in the autumn to believe that some sort of corner had been turned. The DUP and Sinn Fein had taken joint control of the Fresh Start Agreement, appointed David Gordon as their ‘minder,’ produced the first joint platform piece from Foster and McGuinness (in which they lauded their own unity and competence while lambasting the gimmickry of Opposition) and insisted that they were working better together than ever before.
Considering how quickly the Executive collapsed, along with how many items of concern and irritation Sinn Fein mentioned last Monday, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the joint platform was merely a cynical effort by both parties to pull the wool over the eyes of the Opposition, the media and the general public. I’ve said before that these parties, deep down, despise each other. They do; they really do.
So McGuinness has a point when he says that there can be no ‘return to the status quo’ when the election is over. But I would argue that the ‘status quo’ is actually the pretence by Sinn Fein and the DUP — a pretence they have sustained since May 2007 — that they can work together. It is clear that they can’t work together. As the lead parties of their respective communities they have had to sustain the pretence in order to sustain the Executive/Assembly (and all the perks, privileges, profile and patronage that flow from them).
All of which is going to make the next talks process even more complex and convoluted than the one before. Let’s face it, how will they even be able to keep a straight face and a fixed smile when they have to announce the ‘Fresher Than Fresh Three Times Baked Fresh Start’ at some point in the near future? It’s the political equivalent of Mary Berry’s soggy bottoms and unrisen dough.
“But, but, but Alex,” I hear some of you say, “aren’t you assuming that the DUP and Sinn Fein will still be the lead parties after an election?” Yes, I think they will be: although it can’t, at this point, be assumed that it will be Foster and McGuinness (albeit for entirely different reasons) leading the negotiations. Yet, for the sake of argument, let’s run with the possibility that it would be the UUP and Sinn Fein. Well, Mike Nesbitt withdrew his party from the Executive in August 2015 because of concerns about Sinn Fein being ‘still influenced’ by the IRA Army Council. Does he still have those concerns? How far would he be prepared to go to resolve Sinn Fein’s present concerns about lack of respect and parity of esteem? Would he, if the circumstance arose, serve as deputy to a Sinn Fein First Minister (an unlikely but not impossible scenario)?
This new talks process will, I think, be the most difficult one since 1996-8. There was hope in April 1998. There is very little now. The public have been worn down by false dawns and they won’t be fooled or bought off with the same old package wrapped in brighter paper and fancier bows. Crucially — and this could have a huge impact on the DUP — I don’t think the unionist electorate will be as enthusiastic about the ‘Back Arlene…’ strategy as a majority of them were just eight months ago.
An election forced by these present circumstances is a new experience for us. A talks process against the present background is a new experience for us. It will be a very unpleasant, divisive and unsettling few months, I fear. And the fact that none of us saw it coming is what makes it potentially very dangerous, too.