Sam McBride: Though slightly obscured from view, a hypothetical path to devolution exists

For more than a year, there has been no prospect of devolution returning.

Saturday, 27th April 2019, 11:31 am
Updated Saturday, 27th April 2019, 11:33 am
Though far from certain, it is possible that Arlene Foster could return as First Minister before the end of the year

There has not even been the pretence of talks to get Stormont back – nor the slightest urgency from Karen Bradley, either to set up such a process or move to an alternative such as direct rule.

Suddenly, the dissident republicans who despise Stormont have in a single murderous act done more to make possible its return than either the local parties or the government.

Yesterday’s proposal for a new talks process next month still looks highly optimistic. The idea of sandwiching talks in between council and European elections – the point at which parties are most stretched and have the least time to consider what may be complex compromise proposals – is unlikely to produce a sudden breakthrough.

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Even if it did see a sudden shift, parties about to go before the electorate might want to be seen to be open to dialogue, but they are unlikely to want to be seen to compromise on their demands just before voters get their say.

There is another complicating factor. Although Sir Patrick Coghlin has never given any indication as to when the RHI Inquiry will report, whispers from various sources – most of whom are themselves uncertain about what is a closely-guarded secret – suggest that is unlikely to be before June and could be as late as September.

For Sinn Fein in particular, that poses a risk. If the inquiry report is so devastating that Arlene Foster is unable to survive, it would be a major destabilising development just weeks or months into a new dawn.

If the inquiry is highly critical of Mrs Foster, but she survives, there is the risk of a festering sore whereby every time she appears with Michelle O’Neill that image reminds voters that Sinn Fein pulled Stormont down to demand Foster step aside over RHI but was happy to go back in even after she has been found to have been partly to blame for the scandal.

And those problems come before any of the issues in dispute between the DUP and Sinn Fein are considered.

Nevertheless, there is a hypothetical route to Stormont returning later this year, even if it is far from certain that the DUP will jointly decide to travel it.

The first stage is the two elections taking place next month. On paper, next week’s council elections should be very good for the DUP.

Amid weariness at Peter Robinson and multiple unionist alternatives, the party had an awful council election in 2014, seeing its vote slip 4% to 23%. Although council and Westminster elections are not entirely analogous, that is so far behind the 36% of the vote which the DUP took in the 2017 general election that even a result which is halfway between those two figures would represent gains for the DUP across Northern Ireland. For Mrs Foster, who has been wounded as leader for more than two years, that would represent a strong result.

Sinn Fein did not see its vote slide quite so much in 2014, but it also had a poor council election that year. Its vote has risen –as has the total nationalist vote – since then and in the current highly tribalised atmosphere both major parties can expect to take more seats.

If that happens, Sinn Fein would have seen off the first electoral test from both the nascent SDLP-Fianna Fail alliance and the conservative Catholic party Aontú. The DUP would have confirmed its dominance of unionism, despite its difficulties. The European election is likely to follow a similar pattern. From such positions of hegemonic control, both parties would have at least the chance to strike a deal.

The RHI Inquiry report will then either precipitate the defenestration of Mrs Foster, ushering in a new leader who will probably be less disliked by nationalists, or, based on the principle that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, she will survive and regain some of her lost authority.

Either of those scenarios potentially make it easier for Sinn Fein to compromise – if it wants to. The question then would be whether the DUP want to commit to three more years of Stormont where – based on the 2017 result – unionism is a minority and they are just one seat ahead of Sinn Fein.