Sam McBride: Hardening positions mean a third election this year may be looming

Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster together at an event organised by the Methodist Church in Castlewellan on Monday. Picture: Joel Rock.
Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster together at an event organised by the Methodist Church in Castlewellan on Monday. Picture: Joel Rock.

Do either unionists or nationalists love Stormont enough to compromise in order to get it back?

That question has hung over this summer unanswered after the government allowed a series of missed deadlines to be fudged.

The government’s hope was probably that months without Stormont would lead to a public clamour for politicians to get back to work.

In fact, although there are major problems – most acutely in health – the lack of Stormont has had almost no quantifiable impact on the lives of the vast majority of voters – schools or hospitals have not been closed and motorways have not been allowed to become cratered with pot holes.

Five months of civil servants running public services with no democratic accountability is unhealthy – but the errors now being made in departments are unlikely to emerge for months.

In fact, the £1 billion which the DUP secured from the Tories is probably reducing the pressure which might have built on MLAs because that money is helping to offset cuts from schools budgets.

In tandem with that relative calm, there has been increasingly blunt language from the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The parties, which will reconvene in talks in just over a week’s time, are increasingly talking down the possibility of a deal. That is particularly striking from Sinn Fein, a party which is expert at preparing its supporters for looming compromises.

On Tuesday, Danny Morrison – the man who was both Sinn Fein’s spin chief during the Troubles – spoke from the floor at an event (about the RHI scandal) in which I was taking part in West Belfast.

The veteran republican told the Féile an Phobail audience: “The criticism of Sinn Fein I go along with. I think Sinn Fein turned the other cheek too many times...I think that Sinn Fein should have supported the Alliance-UUP-SDLP motion for a public inquiry [into RHI]. But that was another indication that they were trying to keep the show on the road – and I think that was a mistake.

“By that stage, in the nationalist community the anger was building and it was going to blow at some point. It has blown now in a huge way that I don’t believe that it’s going to be possible to put it back together again.”

He went on: “I think we’re at a crux here now and I don’t think there’s going to be an Assembly or an Executive, despite all the parties pledging that they want that back.

“It’s going to be impossible to put it back again, I think, because we are here at a moment that’s an existential situation as regards to the northern state.”

That final comment is almost as gloomy as those of DUP leader Arlene Foster, who last week said that what she characterised as Sinn Fein’s “their way or no way” approach to negotiations meant that “I regretfully have come to the conclusion that Sinn Féin aren’t interested in devolution.”

And Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney claimed the previous day that “the DUP has been emboldened by Tory support for its opposition to the implementation of previous agreements and a rights-based society” and was in no rush to compromise.

The DUP are also starting to talk tough about the alternative of rule from Westminster – where they will have unprecedented influence – if Sinn Fein refuses to re-enter Stormont. Ian Paisley Jr told the News Letter that his party “unanimously wants to see” Stormont returned.

But he went on to say: “If Sinn Fein don’t want to do that, we’ll make sure that governance continues via Westminster. The notion that all these things will stop because Sinn Fein walked out of Stormont is very, very wrong...Sinn Fein by their absentee position are making their people voiceless; if that’s their tactic, they can explain it - I don’t need to explain it for them. But everyone can see that they’re losing.”

The central difficulty in the talks appears to remain that of an Irish language act.

Some DUP members indicate that the party was led to believe by Sinn Fein that there would be “wriggle room” on the issue, probably by including Ulster Scots for some form of ‘languages act’ or ‘cultural act’.

That ambiguity seems to have vanished, with Sinn Fein insisting that it will accept nothing other than a stand alone Irish language act and the DUP ruling that out.

Even some veteran unionist political figures admit to surprise at the strength of grassroots unionist opposition to an Irish language act. Some of those close to the thinking of DUP supporters wonder whether even a ‘cultural act’ could now be sold.

Despite the rhetoric, DUP-Sinn Fein relations have not broken down the extent that entering government together is inconceivable.

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill revealed at a Methodist event on Monday night that she was texting the DUP leader and said that Mrs Foster – who Sinn Fein is demanding must step aside if they are to return – is someone with whom she can do business.

In some ways, an election – the third in little more than six months – may now be the most likely outcome.

That would appeal to the DUP, which if it returns to Stormont now will find itself well beneath strength, based on the nadir of March’s Assembly election.

It would be just one seat ahead of Sinn Fein, meaning that one defection would bring the parties level – and would be tied into that situation until 2022.

Likewise, although the Westminster election result suggests Sinn Fein has no hope of overtaking the DUP, a fresh election would almost certainly cost its nationalist rival, the SDLP, seats – at least one of which would be to the DUP. Some in Sinn Fein would be quietly happy at such an outcome.

Sinn Fein might also hope that the RHI inquiry – which begins hearings in October – might throw up something which will either damage Mrs Foster or re-energise its own supporters.

But ultimately, after an election both those parties would face the same decision: Do they compromise to get Stormont back?

While the DUP’s MLAs are exceptionally keen to back into power – and careers depend on that outcome – there are many grassroots unionists who would like to see Tory-DUP direct rule, without the awkward concessions necessitated by power-sharing with Sinn Fein.

For their part, republicans have never had an emotional attachment to Stormont – even before the wave of anger which drove them to pull down devolution in January.

Some unionists are already starting to think far ahead to an era of direct rule in which they believe that reinforcing the powers of local councils would be necessary to provide some meaningful local democratic control.

But they are mindful that in so doing they could see a quasi re-partition of Northern Ireland, with every border council controlled by nationalists who could use enhanced powers to strengthen cross-border public services, rather than looking north or east to Belfast.

Polling has consistently suggested that support for the principle of devolution is high, despite dissatisfaction with how Stormont has operated.

But Stormont never endeared itself to the public, operating in a reflexively secretive and sometimes arrogant manner where the dominant parties assumed that their positions were assured.

Frequent scandals involving the Executive and individual MLAs meant that by the time devolution fell it had largely exhausted the well of public sympathy.

Now that the Stormont system needs to present its case to the public, most voters’ perception is that its cupboard of achievements is rather bare.