Ben Lowry: The sorry signs of a weakened PM and a weakened unionism

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to the media outside Stormont House on Monday after talks. She also took questions from some journalists including the News Letter, which asked her about Sinn Fein's tactics in bringing down Stormont. 'Picture by Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to the media outside Stormont House on Monday after talks. She also took questions from some journalists including the News Letter, which asked her about Sinn Fein's tactics in bringing down Stormont. 'Picture by Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

To get an idea of how weakened this prime minister is politically, and how deflated unionism seems, consider the following comments made by Theresa May last week.

The remarks were uttered on Monday evening, after she had flown into Belfast to visit Bombardier before travelling on to Stormont to meet politicians involved in the negotiations.

After several hours inside Stormont House, Mrs May then spoke to the assembled press pack outside the building and took a number of questions from them.

The prime minister also took some questions from a number of journalists allowed inside Stormont House — one query each from four locally-based journalists including the News Letter.

Given that we were only allowed a single question and given that she had already been asked by other reporters about key matters such as the state of the talks and Brexit and the border, I decided to pose the following query:

“Prime minister you have talked about your commitment and the goodwill that there is across the board.

“Our readership is mostly unionist and there is a large feeling within unionism that Sinn Fein have been allowed to bring the process to a halt for 13 months.

“Do you have any thoughts on that nervousness that there is amongst many people Northern Ireland?”

Mrs May’s full answer was quite long (the full response is in this story) but the beginning of her response was as follows:

“I think both sides, both the DUP and Sinn Fein, have been working hard over the last 13 months, I think we have seen them coming together, recognising we all want to see the executive reformed here in Northern Ireland, I think that is the best solution for the people here in Northern Ireland.”

Mrs May heads up what one informed Conservative commentator, Henry Hill, convincingly argues is the most unionist Tory administration since the 1990s, which is saying something given that all leaders of the party since Margaret Thatcher have been clear in their unionism.

Yet there is such a desperation in Downing Street to resolve the difficulties in Northern Ireland at a time when the Brexit negotiations are almost all-consuming that Mrs May actually uttered those words: “... Sinn Fein have been working hard over the last 13 months”.

They have indeed, but have they been working hard to restore Stormont in order to be responsible partners in government, as the prime minister implied?

To some of us it seems that their efforts have been focussed on bringing Northern Ireland to a close and fuelling any grievance that they think might alienate people from the state and increase the likelihood of a border poll.

And why would they not? They are a republican party who want Irish unity and of course are going to seize opportunities as big as Brexit and the huge RHI scandal.

Fuelling grievance by constantly implying to impressionable young people that they are being discriminated against by unionists and a British Tory government, and that it follows on in a long tradition of such unionist-Tory bigotry (against which your republican forerunners bravely took up arms), might be despicable, but it isn’t illegal.

The problem comes when there is a system of mandatory coalition in which the two biggest parties from the two main traditions must always be in power at all times.

To bring down power-sharing in those circumstances, knowing that it cannot proceed without you, and to say that it will not return until you get what you want would be a reprehensible abuse of that process even if it was only based upon a single non-negotiable demand.

But over the last 13 months Sinn Fein’s obstructionism hasn’t been based on a single demand. It has been based on a shamelessly cynical and rotating list of demands, only one of which has been unwavering: an Irish language act.

It was on that which, Sinn Fein say, the DUP was about to give way last week until it lost its nerve (something the DUP denies).

If a unionist party abused mandatory coalition to bring down Stormont until it got its demands there would be cross-border, cross-UK, and transatlantic uproar. All other parties would combine against it as would Dublin and possibly London too and in no time a way would be found to move the process on without out the unionists.

But Sinn Fein has been indulged and indulged, as it was in all the other crises since 1998 caused by the IRA. Meanwhile health and education are rudderless, an unpardonable state of affairs.

Imagine that Britain and its unionist constituent parts was a stronger culture, such as Israel, or Spain, or such as you might expect to see in an American state if such a state had an issue with separatists.

Then imagine a ‘unionist’ prime minister or president in any such culture indulging such separatist opportunism, just as Sinn Fein has been indulged over the last 13 months. Not easy to envisage, is it?

Yet here, in the UK, a unionist prime minister propped up by unionists is so vulnerable politically she cannot even dare to whisper the mildest criticism of Sinn Fein, such would be the immediate cry of anti-nationalist discrimination.

To be fair to Mrs May, she was hardly likely to say, on the verge of a possible deal, that Sinn Fein have behaved abominably.

She had also perhaps not expected a question along the lines I posed, and so on the spur of the moment blurted out a benign, meaningless reply.

But that is part of the problem, is it not? For decades we have had political talks in Northern Ireland and even, back in the early 1990s, talks about talks. And always during these interminable negotiations observers hunt for the white smoke: is it done yet?

Has there been a deal?

Is the fine print agreed?

And we in the media class, as much as anyone, join in the cheering when the answer finally comes in the affirmative.

Yet this is not the first logjam when another question needs to be asked: How can anything approaching democracy in Northern Ireland possibly work when one party takes advantage of the mandatory coalition system in this way?

In a sane world Mrs May, and indeed the DUP, would be facing Jeremy Paxman-style grillings, along the lines of: ‘Can it really be true that this political vandalism is about to be rewarded?’

Instead, the media and the watching world on Monday were all awaiting the good news of a deal.

The good news that the vandalism had been placated — for now.

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