I’m accused of ‘lazy analysis’ when I blame both the DUP and Sinn Fein for the failure to nail down a deal.
Sinn Fein supporters tweet that it’s all the fault of the DUP – forgetting that it was Sinn Fein which collapsed the Executive last January. Forgetting, too, that Sinn Fein cut a two-party deal with the DUP in May 2016 (not one mention of previous agreements and pledges having been reneged on by the DUP) and then, six months later, in an article signed-off by Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, boasting of how well they were working together in government (again, not one word of complaint from Sinn Fein about the DUP failing to honour previous agreements).
Indeed, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, were it not for the RHI implosion, both parties would still be in government and still issuing fatuous press releases about their wonderful relationship.
That said, it’s also hard to ignore the likelihood that the DUP ‘played’ Sinn Fein, particularly McGuinness. About two years ago a DUP MLA told me that McGuinness, “likes to think of himself as another Nelson Mandela. He’s willing to take risks that someone like Adams would never take; but when he finally steps aside it could make it a lot harder for us”.
After McGuinness’s joint article with Foster in November 2016, Sinn Fein sources told me that there was ‘unease’ with their base. Put bluntly, they weren’t happy with Foster’s attitude. They accepted Paisley (because they thought he was genuine); and they accepted Robinson (because they regarded him as a serious player with whom McGuinness could do business.)
But Foster was a different kettle of fish. They didn’t think she was genuine. They didn’t think she was interested in their concerns, let alone how they could be addressed and resolved. So RHI was a Godsend for Sinn Fein. A chance to bring her to heel and maybe squeeze some concessions from her. But it wasn’t to be: and the rest, as they say, is history.
The 2017 Assembly election damaged the DUP, robbing them of an overall unionist majority (psychologically damaging for unionism and a huge boost for Sinn Fein); depriving them of the 30 seats required for a petition of concern (and the power to veto key socio/moral issues as well as Irish language legislation); and providing Sinn Fein with a very clear mandate not to give ground.
Back in January I argued that a fairly speedy deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein was possible. It would have allowed them to appoint an Executive and prioritise a limited, yet very specific legislative programme on issues like health, education, the economy and infrastructure. Alongside that would have been a body charged with finding a way through the unresolved ‘big ticket’ problems from the Stormont House Agreement and Fresh Start; as well as proposing solutions for the impasse on same-sex marriage etc. But neither party was interested. They both wanted another election. They both wanted to disadvantage the other. Electoral priorities trumped the very clear need to govern together in common cause.
So yes, I stand by my view that both parties are to blame for the ongoing impasse. They both had opportunities to secure a deal and they both drew lines which widened the chasm between them.
Here’s the blunt, inescapable truth – Northern Ireland needs stable government. The DUP and Sinn Fein say they are prepared to govern together yet seem unable to cut the necessary deal. Their ‘yada yada, it’s their fault’ mantra is both tiresome and self-defeating. And, as I’ve noted, a deal could have been cut months ago if both had been willing to provide space for each other, as well as shifting from the absurd position that, ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.
What we need to see from Foster and Michelle O’Neill in the next few days is any available evidence of the nature and scale of their areas of agreement. How much do they have in common? Is there existing consensus on dealing with health, education et al? Do they already have a reasonably solid Programme for Government ready to roll? Is there the outline of a mechanism whereby they could work on resolving issues which have risen in the past year or so, while allowing the Executive to run the departments? Do they, in fact, trust each other?
We are four months away from the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Which means that the British and Irish governments will pull out every stop and find additional dosh to ‘save the peace process and prevent a return to the bad old days’.
That’s why they want to shift the location for a new round of talks – hoping that locking them all in a big house and keeping them away from their grassroots will make it easier to compromise. That approach didn’t work at St Andrews or at Sunningdale and it won’t work now.
All of this – as I’ve been saying for years – boils down to one question: Do the DUP and Sinn Fein want to govern together? I don’t think they do. Everything they say and do has led me to that conclusion.
Both parties tell me I’m wrong – all the while insisting that the fault lies with the other. How much longer do we give them to prove the cynics and critics wrong? Happy new year!