DUP and Sinn Fein tangled up in an elephant trap of their own making

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This is what Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness wrote in a joint statement on November 21:

“Day by day, slowly but surely, politics here is changing. And it’s for the better. The focus is increasingly now on policies and delivery – on finding the best way to make people’s lives better ...

“Our two parties are now in an Executive facing in the same direction ...

“We made promises to voters that we will keep – taking on the heavy responsibilities that come with elected office, governing in their best interests, tackling head-on the tough decisions … We are getting on with the work ...

“Imagine if we had followed the example of others and decided the challenges of government were just too daunting. That would have opened the door to years of direct rule … rest assured, this Executive is not going to abandon you to that ...

“This is what delivery looks like. No gimmicks. No grandstanding. Just ministers getting on with the work.”

Yet, just 56 days later, the Executive imploded. And while it’s tempting to buy into the narrative that the collapse has been caused by Arlene Foster’s handling of the RHI crisis (and she has contrived to make an absolute dog’s dinner of the handling), it is worth noting what McGuinness wrote in his resignation letter on January 9.

“At times I have stretched and challenged republicans and nationalists in my determination to reach out to our unionist neighbours. It is a source of deep personal frustration that those efforts have not always been reciprocated by unionist leaders.

“At times, they have been met with outright rejection. The equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement have never been fully embraced by the DUP. Apart from the negative attitude to nationalism and to the Irish identity and culture, there has been a shameful disrespect towards many other sections of our community. Women, the LGBT community and ethnic minorities have all felt this prejudice. And for those who wish to live their lives through the medium of Irish, elements in the DUP have exhibited the most crude and crass bigotry.”

Now, since McGuinness didn’t just happen to notice all of these concerns after the RHI story broke on December 6, it seems reasonable to conclude that he co-signed the joint statement on November 21 in the full knowledge that he was extremely uncomfortable with the DUP.

Similarly, the DUP would have been well aware that the personal relationship between the two parties was pretty bad (I have written and spoken about it many times) and yet Foster was able to add her signature to the joint statement.

In other words, both of them signed a statement that they both knew amounted to the propaganda equivalent of ‘a load of old flannel’; a statement whose only purpose was to convey the impression that they had a good working relationship and were much better option that the official opposition.

All of which leaves us with a number of problems: the election won’t be about the RHI and the monumental ineptitude that underpinned its later stages; the DUP and Sinn Fein will fight the usual kind of election on the usual kind of us-and-them issues; and if, as seems likely, the DUP and Sinn Fein emerge as the lead parties, it’s going to be enormously difficult for them to cut a deal they can sell to their own supporters, let alone to anyone else.

How could Sinn Fein reboot the Executive if the concerns set out by McGuinness (and he also accused successive British governments of ‘undermining the process of change by refusing to honour agreements and refusing to resolve the issues of the past’) have not been resolved? Michelle O’Neill may represent the ‘next generation’, but she isn’t going to take a softer stance on those issues; particularly if the DUP pushes the electoral line that she is merely ‘Gerry’s puppet’.

As is stands – and there is still a month to go, of course – it seems fairly likely that Sinn Fein will, and by a comfortable margin, remain the majority voice of nationalism. And while it seems similarly likely – although not a foregone conclusion – that the DUP will retain its top-dog position, two questions are still worth posing: what happens if the UUP eclipse them; or, what happens if a split in unionism results in Sinn Fein as the largest party?

Sinn Fein’s criticisms weren’t solely about the DUP, but about ‘unionist leaders’. The UUP withdrew from the Executive in August 2015 because of concerns about the continuing existence and influence on Sinn Fein of the IRA Army Council.

Many key figures within the UUP, particularly at grassroots level, would share the DUP’s attitude to Irish culture and identity. So merely replacing the DUP with the UUP is no guarantee of an easier path to an Executive reboot. And I’m also pretty sure that Foster and Nesbitt would find it enormously difficult to take on the role of ‘deputy’ to Michelle O’Neill – even if Sinn Fein promised movement on ‘joint first ministers’.

The November 21 statement – which must have seemed a good idea at the time – has turned out to be an elephant trap for both the DUP and Sinn Fein: the elephant isn’t just in the room, it’s lying on top of both of them. Which is why we have the present catastrophe. But that’s what happens when you sign up to a gigantic ‘porkie’ just to pull the wool over the eyes of the media, Assembly opponents, the general public and even your own supporters.