In a piece on January 20, 2017, just after the Assembly election had been announced, I wondered:
‘Is it possible, then, that Sinn Fein is moving into a post-Assembly frame of mind? Talking to some within SF it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they are prepared to let the Assembly go. If that is their thinking – a willingness to let the Assembly go – then it poses a huge problem for unionism.’
I also acknowledged that, ‘We are where we are now because SF, having seemingly been content to work with the DUP on November 21, 2016 (when the ‘no gimmicks, no grandstanding’ joint article from Foster and McGuinness was published) have decided that there won’t be an Executive until they conclude it isn’t a return to the status quo ante – whatever that even means.’
From the outset of this impasse I’ve argued that SF’s approach would make a deal very problematic: ‘Negotiation based on set-in-stone red lines rarely works.’
In a piece last August I noted, ‘The key question for Sinn Fein on June 24, 2016 (after the EU referendum) became one of whether or not they had more to gain from propping up the local institutions or letting them fall. The RHI saga, which prompted McGuinness’s resignation and the collapse of the Assembly, led to an election in which unionism’s seat majority was wiped out; followed by a general election in which unionism didn’t win an overall majority of votes.
‘In terms of strategy, when you’re on that sort of roll, it makes sense to keep piling on the pressure, spooking your opponents and persuading your own base that the ultimate victory – unity – is just within reach.’
In other words, that strategy trumped making it easier for the DUP to cut a deal with them.
Regarding an Irish language act, I wrote, ‘Given the fact that SF didn’t seem unduly concerned about lack of progress on the issue between 2005 and 2016, I’d be genuinely interested to know why an Irish language act now seems to predominate and eclipse every other issue for them ... Anyway, SF is, I think, doing enormous damage to the Irish language.
‘They would do well to heed the late TK Whitaker: “Far better to find more effective ways of advancing an acceptable bilingualism, neither embarrassed nor embarrassing but founded on love and respect for Irish and a resolve to keep it alive.”
My particular concern with SF’s approach is that it seems to be arguing in favour of compulsion. Which, of course, makes a deal even more difficult.
Addressing the issue of SF’s attitude to the IRA, I wrote in a piece in November, ‘However much they may now try to rewrite their history – and there were very clear shifts in strategy, tactics and policy between 1970 and 1997 – it’s impossible for me to believe that the IRA ever gave a damn about unionists.
‘It’s also impossible for me to believe that the IRA wasn’t a terrorist group. My view is that the real freedom fighters in Northern Ireland were NICRA and the SDLP. John Hume did more to change NI than anything the IRA did.’
The reason I’m telling you this is that some people think I’ve been too soft on and uncritical of Sinn Fein (see links below). Anyone who believes that should take a look at my Twitter timeline and see the reaction of SF supporters to much of what I write.
Nor am I blind to the efforts DUP has made to meet SF halfway on key issues. Back in April I wrote that Foster had rowed back from her crocodile comments when she said, “We do want to respect and indeed better understand the language and culture which we are not a part of ... I want to listen and engage with those from the Gaelic/Irish background.’
I acknowledged that she seemed prepared to take risks with her own party to find common ground.
I also acknowledged that the deal the DUP cut with Theresa May in June was a, ‘financial package that was good for all of Northern Ireland rather than just DUP hinterlands’.
When it seems to me that the DUP is going the extra mile to cut a deal with Sinn Fein (and, unlike Sinn Fein, I think there is no doubt that the DUP wants devolution restored) I have flagged it up.
I supported Foster’s proposals in August for rebooting the Assembly immediately, while, in tandem and with time restraints, addressing and trying to resolve the outstanding big ticket problems.
But – and there’s always a but with a Kane column – it still strikes me that both parties carry equal blame for the present mess.
In May 2007, the time of their original deal, they stated they were now able to deliver and sustain stable, consensual government: cue serial crises, stand-offs and talks.
In November 2016 they repeated the claim, mocking other parties for choosing the easy option of opposition. Yet 49 days later the publication of McGuinness’s resignation letter proved that their entire relationship was based on a lie; a lie contrived and designed to fool everybody else. A lie, moreover, intended to conceal the underlying toxicity between them.
The new talks process must begin with total honesty. There are clearly issues on which neither of them will give way.
They tell us they were close to a deal, yet still seem miles apart. The real problem of course is that they don’t trust each other. Never have. Never will.