Responding to a LucidTalk poll last week, that showed the DUP and Sinn Fein running neck and neck, at around 25%, Nigel Dodds said: “These poll results show that, come election day, Sinn Fein could return to Stormont with the most seats and take the first minister’s post. Then there will be nothing to stop them implementing their radical agenda for Northern Ireland. Just imagine what that would mean for our way of life.”
The following day, Sammy Wilson added: “Throughout Northern Ireland people are seeing the real reason why Sinn Fein called the election and that Sinn Fein want to see unionism weakened.” Actually, I’m surprised the DUP didn’t just run with the strapline from the 1986 film, The Fly: ‘Be afraid, Be very afraid’ – because fear of Sinn Fein still seems to be the moving force behind their election strategy.
Interestingly, Arlene Foster took a slightly more nuanced approach when she addressed a business meeting in the Lough Erne Golf Resort on Friday morning: “Devolution works and it delivers for Northern Ireland. I firmly believe in Northern Ireland because I want Northern Ireland to work. I want us to play our part as one of the world’s most innovative and competitive advanced economies. I want devolution to work because it delivers for Northern Ireland.”
And she took that nuanced approach because she knows only too well that business people will not be fooled – and there really is no other word to use – by the scare stuff about Sinn Fein. Indeed, many of those businesses probably share Sinn Fein’s concerns about Brexit.
But if Foster really wants “devolution to work,” then perhaps she could explain how the DUP and Sinn Fein plan to make it work. The three Executives between May 2007 and January 2017 were dogged by one crisis after another; one series of emergency talks after another; one sticking plaster after another; one set of bad-tempered exchanges after another.
Most of the ‘big ticket’ issues remain unresolved. And just two months after the publication of a joint statement in which Foster and McGuinness told us how well they were working together and delivering together, the Executive imploded. Worse, it imploded with accusations from Sinn Fein that there was no ‘respect’ for them from the DUP and that the DUP still didn’t embrace key aspects of the equality agenda at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement.
In her Fermanagh speech Foster also said: “This is an election with an important choice facing us all. The choice between keeping Northern Ireland moving forward to a strong, prosperous future, secure in the UK, or taking the wrong direction with a strengthened Sinn Fein pushing even harder for a united Ireland. That is a choice that will have profound implications for our country, our communities and for you and your family’s future.” In other words, she seems to think that the real purpose of this election, and the devolution which will follow, is for the DUP to stop Sinn Fein and Sinn Fein’s agenda.
The problem with that approach, of course, is that Sinn Fein has adopted the opposite approach: the real purpose of the election and devolution for them is to stop the DUP and the DUP’s agenda. So, when the election is over (and I reckon that both of them will be returned as the lead parties) and the talks process begins, we’ll have two parties who don’t even put up the pretence of believing in a consensual outcome. That doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to pull a turquoise-shaded rabbit from the hat; but it does mean that whatever deal they come up with will be flawed from the start and accompanied by regular periods of cage-rattling and undermining each other.
For all the claims from politicians that, “it’s better than it used to be,” the fact remains that devolution is still very much at the experimental stage. That being the case – and bearing in mind that none of us imagined the Executive would have collapsed so quickly and under these circumstances – I think it’s up to the DUP and Sinn Fein to convince us that they are capable of getting it right this time. I know that Foster and O’Neill have said that they are ready for new talks; but it might help if they told us, now, what issues they’ll be talking about and if they think that resolution is likely. Returning both of them to power is pointless if there’s no likelihood that the causes of the latest implosion could lead to another implosion in a matter of months.
So, here’s a challenge for the other parties: put relentless pressure on Foster and O’Neill to say what they will do after March 2. What does Sinn Fein really mean by, ‘no return to the status quo’? What does the DUP mean by Sinn Fein’s ‘radical agenda’? What went wrong after they co-authored their joint statement in November; or was that statement just a convenient lie? Do they really believe they can get away with another ‘Fresh Start’? Are they, in fact, capable of a genuine, honest, sharing of power?
As it stands, it looks like March 3 won’t herald a change, let alone a breakthrough: and that’s because the DUP/Sinn Fein aren’t setting out a programme for breakthrough or change; and the opposition parties are still running a bizarrely lacklustre campaign. Remind me again – why are we even bothering with an election?