Sam McBride: DUP appears to have calculated to allow abortion, rather than an Irish language act

DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds emerging from Downing Street this week
DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds emerging from Downing Street this week
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A year and a half ago, it was clear that the DUP and Sinn Féin leaderships wanted to cut a deal to restore Stormont.

The deal, which was subsequently leaked, involved some pain for both sides - Arlene Foster eating her own vow never to accept an Irish language act and Michelle O’Neill signing up to a language act much less sweeping than Sinn Féin had hoped.

But after Mrs Foster found it impossible to even sell the deal to her own party colleagues, it quickly imploded and was never tested with the electorate.

Since then, there has been little evidence that either party is prepared to accept significant pain by compromising to restore Stormont.

After the murder of Lyra McKee in April of this year and the accusatory public finger pointed at the DUP and Sinn Féin at her funeral service, both parties agreed to re-enter talks about the possibility of returning to jointly run Stormont departments.

That was followed by an election which was poor for both the dominant parties and in which the centrist parties gained votes - the first electoral punishment either party had suffered for their inability to agree to govern.

Just weeks later, amendments by Labour MPs caught the DUP off-guard and exposed the limitations of the party’s Westminster influence. By a huge majority, MPs voted to legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland and move its abortion regime from being the most restrictive in the UK to the most liberal.

There was one significant caveat: If Stormont was restored by October 21, the changes would not happen.

The DUP argued that such a move made the restoration of Stormont less likely because both issues were among Sinn Féin’s demands and therefore it had no incentive to compromise before that date if to do so was to jeopardise progress in each area.

There was some logic in that argument and it has created a precedent whereby Westminster can now legislate in any devolved area as it sees fit - something which Sinn Féin will not always welcome.

However, in truth the legislation exposed the vulnerability of the DUP’s strategic position. Having for more than a year argued for direct rule in the absence of Stormont, suddenly the reality of what direct rule meant was clear.

The DUP’s stance of standing up to Sinn Fein and refusing to accept an Irish language act was no longer cost-free; something which many of its members and supporters cherished was at stake.

While most in the party quickly seemed to resign themselves to the inevitability of gay marriage, there was a different view of abortion.

For some of those members, they cared almost as much - or in some cases, more - about abortion than about anything else in politics.

In the immediate aftermath of the legislation sailing through Westminster in July, there was an immediate call from pro-life groups such as Both Lives Matter for the DUP to accept an Irish language act in order to stop the abortion reform.

It appeared that circumstances had inadvertently provided Mrs Foster with the argument she lacked the previous February when unable to sell a deal to her party colleagues. Many of the party’s most vocal opponents of an Irish language act are also those who have been the most staunchly opposed to abortion.

Over the summer there were talks involving Timothy Johnston, the power behind the DUP throne, and Conor Murphy, Sinn Féin’s key negotiator.

However, in recent weeks there has been scant evidence that either of these parties is preparing the ground for a compromise deal or for entering government together within weeks.

One factor in the DUP’s thinking may have been that there does not appear to have been an electorally significant groundswell of opposition to its current stance of remaining outside Stormont rather than accepting an Irish language act.

Some of the major anti-abortion protests - including a crowd of many thousands at Stormont last Friday night - have appeared politically naive, having been targeted at Westminster, which is not going to change its mind and, even if it wanted to repeal the legislation, is now prorogued so cannot do so.

Senior DUP figures, including Mrs Foster, were comfortable to be at that rally, presumably because it was not a protest calling on the DUP to prioritise abortion over the Irish language.

In fact, the party may be able to successfully argue to socially conservative supporters that it has stood against Westminster’s changes and voted against them - banking on them not realising that it never escalated the issue by threatening to topple the government over it, as it had done with other issues which it opposed.

Speaking to various DUP sources this week, they are agreed that they do not expect their party to re-enter government before October 21.

In part, that appears to be because the major pressure on the party from pro-life activists has not materialised. But an additional factor in that calculation is the likelihood of a general election this year or the near-certainty of one early next year.

The party appears to feel more certain about fighting that election on a decision to stay out of Stormont, even if that angers some of its most socially conservative base, than on agreeing to an Irish language act.

The opposition to an Irish language act has been widespread - surprisingly so, to many observers - and targeted directly at the DUP.

One prominent DUP member, who is personally very unhappy at the abortion changes, said that if the party agreed to an Irish language act it would be “crucified” at the polls.

But although the DUP-Sinn Fein talks have been kept to a small number of people, some within the DUP who have heard second-hand about that process believe that it has been going into reverse.

One member said that when Michelle O’Neill - unlike Conor Murphy - comes to the talks she “parrots the same thing over and over” without significant engagement, something which was being interpreted by the DUP as a reticence by Sinn Fein to enter Stormont until Brexit is resolved.

If Brexit leads to an outcome whereby Stormont has some role in deciding which EU regulations apply to Northern Ireland, that could give both parties an incentive to restore devolution - an irony, given how Brexit has driven them apart.

The abortion and same-sex marriage amendments are a warning to the DUP that if Stormont goes, even with the arithmetic of this Parliament putting it at the zenith of its influence in Westminster, it is uniquely vulnerable to changes - whether social or in other areas - being passed by MPs who do not share its view of the world.

But Sinn Fein is not without its own difficulties with the status quo. Facing a fall in the polls, and a specific challenge on the issue of abortion from Aontú, it needs something to change the narrative.

John O’Dowd’s challenge to Michelle O’Neill had the potential to secure that change, but now it appears that overwhelmingly the party’s top brass are closing ranks around Ms O’Neill.

With an Irish general election looming next year, a return to Stormont could help the party to change the way in which it is perceived, fighting back against the presentation of Sinn Fein as abstentionist wreckers.

But there is a more fundamental question for Sinn Fein out of this period of creeping direct rule: What does it say about its vision of nationalism and republicanism if Westminster is now a more effective delivery agent for its policies than Stormont?