When Martin McGuinness collapsed the Executive and Assembly in January 2017 (by way of his resignation letter) I wonder what was going on in the minds of Sinn Fein’s key strategists. The party never does anything on the spur of the moment.
Everything is thought through. A few weeks earlier, as the RHI saga was beginning to gather a little momentum, all he asked for was Arlene Foster to stand aside for a brief period. At that moment there was no sense of Sinn Fein giving up on the devolution project. Indeed, had she nominated someone to stand in for her (as she herself had done previously for Peter Robinson) it seems likely that all would have returned to what passes for normal pretty quickly.
But the resignation letter indicated the sheer scale of Sinn Fein’s difficulty with the DUP. When I read the full text I remember commenting – on Talkback, I think – that it could be a very long time before the institutions were functioning again. For years both the DUP and Sinn Fein had dismissed articles I had written about the ‘toxicity at the heart of the relationship between them’ (although I did admit that McGuinness and Robinson seemed determined to make the best of a bad hand); but from late January 2017 they were not dismissing those of us who were warning about the long-term difficulties.
But what did Sinn Fein imagine was going to happen after the publication of the letter? They couldn’t have foreseen the ‘crocodile’ comment from Arlene Foster a few months later. They couldn’t have taken it for granted that there would be an early Assembly election, let alone that they would run the DUP so close, or that unionism would lose its overall majority. They couldn’t have known that an early general election would place the DUP in the role of kingmaker at Westminster, meaning that there would be no particular pressure on Foster to cut an Assembly deal. So again, what was Sinn Fein thinking in January 2017?
What had become clear fairly soon after Arlene Foster replaced Peter Robinson as DUP leader and first minister in January 2016 was, that from McGuinness’s perspective, something had changed. He had been able to reach a personal and political modus vivendi with Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, but not, it seems, with Foster. There were also rumblings of concern from within elements of Sinn Fein’s grassroots about Foster and her ‘obvious problem with Sinn Fein’. But even with all of that there was still the sense that he was trying to offer her wriggle-room after the RHI Spotlight programme in December 2016.
Is it fair to conclude that her rejection of that offer was a final straw for him? His own decision to stand down had been taken by that stage – although it’s not clear how many people knew how close to death he was. It’s also not clear whether his resignation letter was a deliberate attempt to bring down the institutions, or just an attempt to put the sort of pressure on her (along with key figures in the DUP leadership) that would force a rethink on standing aside. As I say, I don’t know the answer: but I do know that the contents of the letter changed the dynamics between both parties and exposed fault lines that had mostly been hidden – even from their own grassroots.
The other thing that still puzzles me is the role of an Irish language act (ILA) in the talks process. Both parties signed up to Programmes for Government in 2007, 2011 and 2016, with barely a mention of it. In the summer of 2017 the DUP was taking soundings across unionism and sections of civic society about accommodating a possible ILA, but opinion I was hearing from within unionism suggested very little support. Yet it was clear that it was being talked about during the talks process in the autumn/winter of 2017/early 2018. Why? Did the DUP think they could sell something to their public representatives and grassroots? Did they convey that impression to Sinn Fein and both governments? I accept the DUP statement from February 2018 that they had not signed off on a deal that included an ILA; that said, why did they let the issue run for so long in that key moment of the talks process?
Had the DUP agreed to an ILA it seems fairly certain that Arlene Foster would have been accepted again as first minister. It also seems certain that Sinn Fein would have rowed back on issues like changes to the Petition of Concern, same-sex marriage and abortion reform. Indeed, the response from most commentators to the talks papers leaked to and published by Brian Rowan and Eamonn Mallie was that the DUP had come out on top.
Where are we now? Sinn Fein seems to have shifted its attention almost entirely to the unity project and a border poll and is very unlikely to change its mind on an ILA. The DUP may have major problems with a backstop and no deal (and yes, the party is well aware of the potential impact) and I think it knows its grassroots wouldn’t be prepared to swallow an ILA. Yet both parties, albeit for mutually contradictory reasons, may be nudging towards rebooting the institutions. Sinn Fein took an electoral hit in the south a few weeks ago and some evidence suggests the absence of devolution and power-sharing here damaged them. The DUP may not be kingmaker in Westminster for much longer and will want a powerbase in Stormont again.
A huge concession is required from both Foster and Mary Lou McDonald if that is to happen. How likely is that? And how would an Executive function against the backdrop of either a backstop hated by the DUP; or no deal, no backstop and a new border, hated by Sinn Fein? The NIO and new SoS Julian Smith are talking up the prospects of a returned Assembly. I hope they’re not making the mistakes made in February 2018.