Ben Lowry: Sinn Fein said the Stormont talks were a ‘sham’ but perhaps that defines its own role in them

Sinn Fein yesterday dismissed the Stormont talks as a ‘sham’.

Saturday, 16th February 2019, 8:42 am
Updated Monday, 18th February 2019, 10:49 am
Sinn Fein delegation: (left to right) Conor Murphy, Michelle O'Neill, Gerry Kelly and Mary Lou McDonald at Stormont after powersharing talks on Friday. Ms McDonald called the talks a "sham". Photo: David Young/PA Wire

Perhaps, to some extent, it was.

Perhaps the UK government lacks the energy or inclination to push a resumption of devolution, so exhausted is it with Brexit turmoil.

Theresa May’s administration continues to teeter on the brink of collapse, as is apparent in the story that we publish on page four, in which Dominic Grieve is quoted.

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Perhaps, also, the DUP is not particularly determined to see the return of Stormont just now.

But the big question, to which very few people know the answer, is whether or not Sinn Fein’s participation in the talks was, to use Mary Lou McDonald’s word again, a ‘sham’.

Does the republican party want the return of devolution or not?

My sense is that there is a divide, perhaps not a bitter divide but a divide even so, between a destabilising wing and a more pragmatic wing, personified by Ms McDonald.

She has never seemed like a Sinn Feiner, but rather someone who was perhaps far-sighted and envisaged the party going on to great things.

Some commentators that are close to nationalism tell us, with what at times seems like glee, that nationalists are “over Stormont”.

If that is so, what, I wonder, they think is then likely to happen.

Do they think that that brings joint authority closer?

Or Irish unity?

Or general instability and chaos that will lead towards the latter?

We will find out soon enough, in the coming years, whether Brexit has caused such an earthquake in attitudes towards unity: and it would have to be an earthquake, because serious and sustained support for unity has hitherto been derisory, less than 25% of people who expressed a preference in polls.

The polling on current support for unity is conflicted, with the face-to-face studies since the 2016 Brexit referendum showing little movement towards it.

But there is no room for complacency among unionists.

There has been no time since 1921 (of which I am aware) when a large section of the non nationalist population has been as angry with Britain as pro European moderates seem now to be.

I also fear that there are echoes of Ireland in 1918 in some of the current cross-border mood.

This paper is serialising news from our own pages from 280 years ago, in 1739, and we are the only English language daily paper in history old enough to have been able to run such a regular historic column (click here to see more).

But many newspapers run On This Day columns, and I have long read Eamon Phoenix’s series in the Irish News. During the centenary of the Great War, he reproduced daily what that paper was reporting from exactly 100 years before, 1914 -1918.

For much of the last year of the war, the government in London was planning to introduce conscription in Ireland, plainly unaware of the extent to which the mood had changed after the 1916 executions.

The recent poll showing overwhelming solidarity in the Republic for the ultra green current Irish government and its unbending approach to the backstop made sobering, if unsurprising, reading.

So it is by no means illogical for Sinn Fein to adopt a destabilising tactic at such a time of upheaval, even though it is despicable.

After all, they are single minded in their pursuit of Irish unity, and they have had few opportunities like this in the last century.

But at the same time, the British government should be driven by a simple guiding principle: that any destabilising tactics, such as pulling down Stormont, will not be seen to have resulted in reward (such as achieving an Irish language act).

If, instead, collapsing Stormont is seen to have got results, then devolution is ultimately doomed because there will be periodic such crises into the future.

That is why I think the government should have introduced direct rule 18 months ago, and given MLAs a role scrutinising NIO ministers.

It is said that this would fail in its aim of isolating Sinn Fein, because the SDLP would join them in boycotting such scrutiny.

If that is so, then so be it. When the SDLP has tried to out-green SF it hasn’t worked well for them.

I see barely a cigarette paper between the SDLP and SF on legacy, for example, and the narrative that Northern Ireland was a rotten state.

By endorsing such a narrative the SDLP have merely placed themselves as the draft dodgers of the Troubles.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor